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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Where Paranoia Comes From
He was a popular man, this teacher. At least among kids in the fourth grade. Tall, gangly fellow who loped slowly and casually through the halls. He had wild hair and a droopy mustache, and always wore a cowboy hat and one of those Marlboro Man suede jackets. Given the popular culture of the day, he came to be known on the playground as the Rhinestone Cowboya nickname he was well aware of, and played up as much as he could.
He was friendly and funnyhe laughed a lot, told jokes, that sort of thing. Most of the kids adored him, even if they thought he was a little goofy.
I never quite trusted him, though. In many ways, in fact, I came to despise that man.
Its a story that, in its own way, reaches back to a point long before I ever met Mr. Ingbring. (That was his real name, too"Ingbring." It rhymes with almost everything. Including "everything.")
See, sometimes I took grade school projects a little too seriously, and a little too far. This tendency led to its own kind of trouble. The earliest instance of this that I can remember (with a clarity thats almost physically painful) came two years before I walked into creepy Mr. Ingbrings classroom.
I was admittedly paying less than full attention to the lesson at hand. But I remember half-hearing my second-grade teacher say something about the fact that we were going to be making dioramas. Thats what she said: "Tomorrow were going to be making dioramas." Rather than bothering to listen to the rest of the details as she laid them out, I simply made up my own detailswhich is something I generally preferred to do. Things were easier that way.
I ran home from school that afternoon and immediately started gathering supplies. By that age, I had been to enough museums around the Midwest to know what goes into a good diorama. (In fact, to this day Im a big fan of the diorama as art form.) It was going to be, as I remember, a scene from the Roman Colosseum. Lions and slaves and bloodshed. So I found myself a box, and some string, and some little army men and plastic wild animals. Glue, tape, magic markers, everything Id need to create the best goddamned desktop Colosseum diorama my teacher had ever seen.
The next morning, I put everything into the big cardboard box, and carried it up the hill to the school. Once I got up there, and began mingling around with the dozens of other students wandering around, waiting for the morning bell to ring, I noticed something.
Why isnt anybody else loaded down with diorama supplies?
Nobody else from my class was carrying anythingno boxes, no construction paper, no figurines, no nothing.
Well, all these kids were obviously going to be in big trouble. Was I the only one who had been paying attention in class? What were they gonna do, given that I had no intention of sharing my supplies with them? Hathey were screwed.
Then I noticed that they were all staring at me. All these diorama-less children were forming a rough circle around where I stood with my box, and they were all staring at me. What? I remember thinking. Whats wrong?
Then I remembered that I was carrying a huge cardboard box full of crap, and I was the only one carrying a huge cardboard box full of crap. Therefore, as the rules clearly state, I needed to be stared at.
Now, for some reason, I never could stand to be stared at. Even being glanced at still makes me nervous. And at that tender age, well, I hadnt learned many of the fundamentals of diplomacy, and knowing no betternot knowing it wouldnt help my situation at allI began to scream.
"Stop staring at me! All of you! Just stop staring at me!"
Yes, well, that didnt work. Neither did the sobbing that soon followed. I just wanted to make my damn diorama and be left alone.
But even after the bell rang and I dragged this huge cardboard box into class and dropped it on my desk, the teacher began to stare at me.
"Whats all that for?" she asked.
"Umm," I said, starting to sweat, feeling my ears turn hot, "the diorama?"
"Diorama?" she asked.
That should have been lesson enough for me. And for a while, it was. But within two years, by the time I was in Mr. Ingbrings class, I had forgotten all about that diorama business.
He had us read some story or another about knights and dragons. I was very enthusiastic about knights and dragons at the time, so I was happy about this. I was happier still when he announced that those students who went home and made their own dragons and brought them into class would get extra credit.
Its not like I was a little brown-noser or grade-grubber. I just liked dragons. So I went home that night and got to planning. I was going to create a dragon thatd make his eyes pop out of his head. Well, farther.
As I worked tirelessly over the next few days, other students started bringing their so-called "dragons" into class. Dragons made out of pipe cleaners and construction paper and sparkles. Toilet paper tubes covered with magic marker scribbles. No way to tell which end was which. I was embarrassed for my entire generation.
Nevertheless, they all received extra credit, and had their "dragons" displayed together on the back table.
Meanwhile, back down the hill in my basement, things were starting to come together. I started with the ol papier-mache-over-the-balloons trick, to provide it with a clearly identifiable head, body and tail. Then I made wings out of cardboard. Then I wrapped the whole thing in small strips of masking tape to give it a scaly texture. Then I painted it green, with bulging red eyes, shiny black claws and blood-stained fangs.
In the end, the dragon was over two feet long, had a wingspan of nearly a yard and stood three inches off the ground. Never before had I been so proud of anything Id made with my own two hands.
Unfortunately, Id worked myself up into such a lather in the process of making that fucking dragon that I came down with a cold, and had to miss a day of school.
Just as well, I thoughtitll give me time to do the final detail work.
The following morning, feeling well enough to go back to school, I put on my shoes and coat, hoisted the dragon in both arms and proudly marched it up to the schoolyard. The other kids stared at me this time, too, but I didnt let it get to me. This time I put it down to simple envy on their part.
When the bell rang, I went inside, hung up my coat, then carried the dragoncarefully, so none of the other kids could knock it out of my hands, down to Mr. Ingbrings classroom, where I set it on his desk.
"Whats this?" he asked.
"Its, ah," I said, wondering if he was joking or not, "my dragon."
He didnt even look up from his desk when he said, "Those were all due yesterday."
He had to have been joking, like he was always joking.
"But I was sick yesterday."
"Yesterday was the deadline."
"But I couldnt turn it in yesterday. Its here now, though."
"I cant give any extra credit for something thats late. And besidesall the other students took theirs home with them yesterday."
I looked over at what had been the dragon table. It was empty. Thats when I realized he wasnt joking.
I couldnt believe this shit. It was right around that very moment that my thoughts concerning Mr. Ingbringfunny, goofy, Rhinestone Cowboy Mr. Ingbringbecame dark, bitter and borderline homicidal. Id heard rumors that he was born with a harelip and a cleft palate, and now I didnt doubt it for a second. And what was the deal with him acting out the entire Wizard of Oz in front of class over three consecutive days? Thats just weird. He mustve been a pervert.
Now not only was I not going to get any extra credit, and lose my one and only chance to show up the other kids in classnow I had to carry this fucking thing around with me for the rest of the day before carrying it home again. Fucking dragon. I made myself sick over this thing, and it was making me a laughingstock in return.
But I carried it around with me, to lunch, to the playground. I accepted the taunts and the barbs and the jibes. And I carried it back home with me that afternoon.
When I walked in the front door and set it down on the kitchen table, my momwho was ironing at the timeasked, "Why didnt you leave that at school?"
I told her what had happened, leaving out the swear words. When I was finished, she unplugged the iron, snatched the dragon off the kitchen table and went into the garage. I heard the car door slam, the engine turn over and the car back out.
I generally tried to dissuade my parents from seeing my teachers under any circumstances (it never helped matters), but this time, having seen the look in her eye, I knew there would be no stopping her.
Forty-five minutes later, I heard the car pull into the driveway again. She walked into the kitchen a minute later, still carrying that dragon. I didnt ask, and she didnt tell. The only thing she said, as she set the dragon back down on the kitchen table, was "I dont like that man."
That night, unaware that I was probably exposing myself to a variety of toxic fumes as a result, I placed my dragon in the big fireplace in the basement and watched it burn. Which, I must admit, was pretty cool. It was never spoken of again.