Can you win a showdown with the issues of the day using only the written word?
I had Mrs. Steuchel. (STOO’-chuhl) for eighth grade English. If such a thing were empirically measurable I’d wager my entire baseball card collection on this: Mrs. Steuchel was the cruelest teacher in the world.
In the cafeteria and locker rooms and hallways we referred to her, in whispers, as “Stooch,” or maybe “The Stooch.” With each passing day of the school year it became more apparent that she’d selected her profession not because she wished to enrich the minds of her charges but because she hated children and wished to be mean to them. She was a “Mrs.,” but everyone, including, likely, her fellow teachers, assumed she’d killed and eaten Mr. Steuchel some years ago, and the only reason she was not behind bars on charges of murder, cannibalism, and viciousness to kids was because she also terrified the police.
There was another eighth grade English teacher, and to those of us who had The Stooch the difference was as stark as the difference between heaven and hell. His students were always eating cotton candy and taking field trips to the movies, while we were diagramming sentences on the chalkboard. One at a time, in front of the entire class. These sentences, mind you, were no simple subject-predicate affairs. The Stooch’s sentences were rife with gerunds and adverbs and subordinate clauses, corpses of the English language she summoned from the realms of the dead. Our pubescent hands shook so badly each down-stroke on the rickety chalkboard produced a retching squeak that must’ve sounded, in The Stooch’s ears, Mozart-esque.
Eighth grade, regardless of teachers and subject matters, is its own social phenomenon. It’s the time of life when some mysterious, terrible hand of the universe organizes people—sometimes for the first time and sometimes permanently—into easily identifiable social classes. Jocks. Nerds. Band Geeks. The Popular Kids. Burnouts.
Where I went to eighth grade the burnout was the most identifiable subgroup. Whereas the popular kids wore Jordans from Foot Locker and Vaurnet France t-shirts, the burnouts wore Voits from K-Mart and Megadeth t-shirts. Whereas the popular kids snuck booze from their parents’ fridges, the burnouts smoked cigarettes across the street from the school. Whereas the rest of us muttered curses about our teachers in our minds, the burnouts called the vice principal names to his face. Burnouts never sat in front, never raised their hands, never played sports, never went to dances. They were never their teachers’ favorites. They were never anybody’s favorites.
Midway through eighth grade a new student suddenly appeared in The Stooch’s class: Liz, an obvious burnout—high boots, ripped jeans, and a black leather jacket she never left in her locker. She had a gaunt face and greasy hair and spent most classes staring out the window. At first Liz’s presence made absolutely no difference. She was a burnout and, as such, summarily disregarded. Besides, The Stooch was a kind of equalizer. Under her tutelage all kids morphed into academic zombies in possession of the impressive—though useless—ability to reverse engineer Finnegan’s Wake.
A few weeks after Liz arrived The Stooch strode to the front of the classroom holding a VHS tape in her hand. Behind her stood an enormous TV/VCR combo strapped to a wobbly AV cart.
“Liz let me borrow this,” The Stooch said, and held up the tape. “It’s the music video for the song ‘One’ by Metallica. And we are going to watch it.”
You can easily find it on YouTube, but here’s the recap: Metallica plays the song in an enormous, dark room interspersed with clips from the 1971 movie Johnny Got His Gun. In the movie a WWI soldier is hit by a mortar shell. His limbs are blown off. He’s blinded. He can only communicate by tapping out Morse code with his head on his pillow. Mutilated and in agony, he finally taps out “Kill me.” The medical staff refuses. The movie, and the video, end.
The Stooch looked at us and said, “Should they have left him alive or not? You will now write an essay on the topic of euthanasia.”
That I face my own little existential crises on a nearly daily basis is surely one of the great joys of my Major Depressive Disorder diagnosis. Who the hell am I? Well, I can’t say with any more certainty now than I could in eighth grade. Except for this: I’m a writer. Billy Crystal’s character in the 1987 black comedy Throw Momma From the Train says, “A writer writes.” That’s true. And a good writer writes about substantive stuff. Mrs. Steuchel presented me with my very first opportunity to consider, via writing, something of massive, nay, cataclysmic import.
“Presented” is the wrong word. It was more like an affront. And not whether euthanasia should’ve been applied or not, either. Euthanasia was secondary. What was primary was the essence of the writerly life that Mrs. Steuchel baked into the assignment: Can you win a showdown with the issues of the day using only the written word? Can you break an idea from a wild stampede of the imagination, love it, train it, and make it your horse? That is to say, “Do you have the guts to be a writer?” I’ve been busting my ass (and my keyboard) ever since, trying to answer “Yes.” Thanks, Mrs. Steuchel.
And then there’s this: It seems obvious that eighth grade teachers would stay way the hell out of their students’ personal lives. At the same time, every eighth-grade teacher must notice the cliques to which, by the assignment of their peers, their students belong. Anyway, “identity” as a construct tends to be writ humongous-ly, if not yet very deeply, on the psyche of any given eighth grader. You really can’t miss who they think they are or, more pointedly, who their fellows have told them they are. To the student body of my junior high, and to most of the other teachers, burnouts were losers. Full stop.
But not to Mrs. Steuchel. Remember that story in the Bible where the people said, “We’re starving,” and Christ said, “Well, guys, what are we gonna do?” and the disciples said, “The burger joints in town will appreciate the business,” and this one kid, let’s say an eighth-grade burnout, said, “I’ve got some fish and bread or whatever,” and the disciples said, “What’s the point, kid?” and Christ said, “Give it here”?
That thousands of people got something to eat that day is, you know, worth noting, but the real miracle is how the teacher made a critical partner out of the “least of these” in order to change everybody else’s life. The people got a bite to eat. Fine. The next day they were hungry again. And the next and the next and the next. Yet here I sit, a long way from a.) my days in eighth grade and b.) the time of Christ, pondering anew just how crucial the burnouts—the ones with a little fish, bread, and Metallica tapes—are to the rest of humanity. No priest or pastor or minister taught me that. Thanks again, Mrs. Steuchel.
Paul Luikart is the author of the short story collections Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016), Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017), Metropolia (Ghostbird Press, 2021) and The Museum of Heartache (Pski’s Porch Publishing, 2021.) He serves as an adjunct professor of fiction writing at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia and lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.