I told this story at the Houston Storytellers’ Guild 2015 “Liars’ Contest.” It was partly inspired by my recent adventures teaching at a middle school. It belongs to my Booby Naked story collection .
Earlier this year I started teaching at Romero Middle School. I taught creative writing. It was my first year teaching, so there were always surprises.
For example, middle school students ask strange questions. Like, Mr. Nagle, are you married? Mr. Nagle, do you have a girlfriend? Mr. Nagle, are you gay? Mr. Nagle, do you have a car? Mr. Nagle, do you like football? Mr. Nagle, do you drink a lot of beer? Mr. Nagle, what do you think of Kanye West? Mr. Nagle, do you have $5 I can borrow? Mr. Nagle, what’s the wifi password? Mr. Nagle, did you get fired from your last job?
One day I gave students a writing assignment. While they were writing, one girl’s hand shot up. I expected that she wanted me to explain something or would ask me for a pencil. Instead she asked, “Mr. Nagle, have you ever been to SeaWorld? It’s REALLY fun.”
(In case you’re wondering, the answer to those questions is No, no, no, no, no, no, don’t care, no, there isn’t one, of course not and not yet).
Another strange thing about middle school students is that no matter how many times you remind them, 20-25% will forget to put their name and period number on assignments. I ended up having to toss out a lot of brilliant but nameless compositions.
No matter what the writing assignment, half the students will quickly close their notebook after writing the words “THE END” in big letters at the bottom of the page.
Next class I told them loudly, “Do not write those two words at the end of your paper. It is unnecessary; the end needs to be a natural stopping point. Your essay shouldn’t just end when you are tired.”
I thought I had myself perfectly clear, but when the next batch of student papers came in, the number of “THE ENDs” at the bottom of the page remained the same.
I did a lesson about TV writing. We watched Twilight Zone episodes, then students were supposed to brainstorm TV plots in small groups.
During class I walked around the room, listening to what each group was planning.
When I walked by Group One, I overheard their discussions: “There are these students being chased by zombies. The zombies chase them around the school hallways until the students trap them in the cafeteria. But the students have already put cans of gasoline inside, so once all the zombies are there, the heroes kill them by throwing a match in the room.”
When I pass by Group Two, I hear a different approach. They were excitedly discussing Zombie Airlines where zombie flight attendants attack passengers in midair by zombies, so that when the passengers land, they will eat the brains of anybody who picks them up at the airport.
The third group is actively struggling. “Mr. Nagle,” the group leader says. “We already agree that the story will be about a zombie apocalypse at Walmart. We are agreed that ebola is how the zombie disease is spread to humans. We just can’t agree how to kill them: should they be killed by fireballs, cutting off their heads or exposing them to radiation?”
“Enough!” I said the next day. “No More Zombies!” I write in big letters on the board. “Zombies were a cliche 40 years ago. There is no plot twist involving zombies which hasn’t already been done. Zombie stories are too predictable, and so are the characters. Either the good guys turn out to be zombies or at the last minute the hero accidentally discovers a new way to kill zombies, or the hero finally dies during one last battle or the hero was a zombie all along. There’s a reason that zombies turn up in video games but not Shakespeare: plot is nothing more than chasing and killing and spawning other zombies. There’s only one thing that zombies can infect — your grades! For that reason, I am making a new rule: No more zombies!””
The students cried out in protest.
“Mr. Nagle, it’s not fair!” said one indignant student. “I already started my story, and now you want me to throw it away just because you decided to change the rules.”
“Mr Nagle,” said another. “My story doesn’t have zombies but creatures which look and act like zombies but are purple-colored and called Zambies. Is that ok?”
“Mr. Nagle, I know you don’t want us to write about zombies,” said a third. “But my zombies are special. They’re not even called zombies, and yes, they like to eat brains, but they also like eating ice cream. My zombies don’t carry disease, but they shoot laser beams out of their eyes. Is that all right?
“Of course not,” I said.
“Mr Nagle,” asked another. “My main character is a little girl who thinks she is a zombie and goes about eating people’s brains and then she wakes up and realizes it was just a dream. Is that all right?”
“Absolutely not!” I said. “Instead of trying to find a loophole, why not just come up with a non-zombiesh idea?!”
Then Michelle Kellogg raised her hand. She was the best student in the class. “Mr. Nagle,” she said, “on the first day of class, you said that to write great stories, we needed to free our imaginations. But now you are saying that freeing our imagination is forbidden; doesn’t that make it impossible to write great stories? Suppose I wanted to use a zombie in a poem. Or what if the main character works at a factory job so dull that she imagines that zombies run it. Or maybe my story is about a zombie high school where one lone zombie secretly prefers to eat bananas and is scorned by her peers. Should I toss away ideas simply because you have decided that you know better what stories are good? This isn’t a creative writing class — this is a dictatorship!”
“Yeah!” everyone in the class yelled.
“You are exaggerating,” I said to Michelle.
“Mr. Nagle, everyone in the class agrees with me,” Michelle said.
“Ellen,” I said to a small girl standing at my side. “Do you agree with Michelle?”
“No, I just want the restroom pass.”
“Mr. Nagle, I need a restroom pass too,” said a boy named Jesse.
“Jesse, you can wait until Ellen returns.”
“But Mr. Nagle, it’s an emergency! I really need to go.”
Relenting, I wrote Jesse a pass, as a tiny girl started pinching me. “What is it, Susan? Do you also have to go?”
“No,” she said, smiling. “I’m a zombie and I need to eat your brains….”
“Please sit down!” I said.
But three other students were huddled around me, with eyes pleading for either artistic license or the right to go potty — I could no longer tell the difference.
“Everybody, sit down and wait your turn.”
“But Mr. Nagle! Mr. Nagle!”
Just then I felt a sharp claw against my leg. It was Melanie who whined softly, “Mr. Nagle, is it all right if I eat your brains?”
“Sit down!” I repeated. “And stop being inappropriate.”
But now all the students crowded closer. I sidled to the door and glanced down the hallway. Inching towards me was the boy I had given the hall pass to. He was dragging his body forward, and his head was tilted sideways as he gave an unnatural smile.
Then it dawned on me. These students….they were all the same… They were zombies! Real live zombies! Crazed, single-minded, incapable of individual thought and determined to subvert every aspect of my authority. And they were trying to bite me… First, it was Melanie, but then a student named Jeffrey tried to do the same.
The bell rang, and I darted out the hallway before other students could chase me down. Various groups were emerging from each classroom and herding around me, but I ducked into a faculty restroom and locked the door.
Yells and moans were coming from the other side of the door, but I felt safe behind the restroom door. The bell rang again, but I could still hear pounding and the occasional yell from the other side of the door.
Just then I heard a grown up voice say, “Mr. Nagle, are you in there?” It was Officer Falcon, the campus police officer.
“Yes, I’m here!” I called out. A key opened the door, and Officer Falcon propped it open while waving a fiery torch towards the crowd of passing students.
“Move along! Move along!” he called out, causing them to recoil to the opposite wall.
“Mr Nagle, Principal Martin asked me to bring you to the front office.”
“The principal?” I said. I had never been called to the principal’s office before.
As Officer Falcon swept the torch ahead to repel the hordes of zombie students, we hurried to the front office.
Principal Martin was waiting.
“Mr. Nagle, we have a situation,” he said, ushering me into his office. “Several students and parents have said that you are forbidding students from writing about zombies.”
I began to explain my dissatisfaction with student assignments and why zombie-free stories were better. But Mr. Martin just sighed and said, “Mr. Nagle, do you see the problem?”
“The classroom is supposed to be a setting for diversity and mutual tolerance, but now you have turned it into something else. Our school is committed to a curriculum that is both innovative and inclusive. Perhaps when we were young, zombie sensibilities were never discussed — because we never were exposed to a more zombie-friendly curriculum, but times have changed — and that is a good thing.”
“Maybe that’s true,” I said. “But I wasn’t actually criticizing zombies. I just wanted to help students to avoid writing themselves into a corner.”
“Mr. Nagle, our most important duty is to cultivate THIS.” The principal pointed to his head. “The human brain. How can the world harvest these magnificent fruits of human intellect if our schools fail to grow them to maturity? Without the proper stimulation, the human brain tires and contracts; it could even wither away. As teachers, we need to align our lesson plans to support an optimal level of brain growth. For that reason, I am asking Ms. Kirkman to prepare a directive instructing you to adopt a policy of zombie-tolerance and respect. This should be reflected not only in assignments but also class discussions. If necessary, I can arrange for you to attend a zombie diversity workshop, but I trust you can follow the directive on your own. Am I right?”
“I guess so,” I replied.
“Good. Wait here, and I’ll see if Ms. Kirkman has the paperwork.”
Moments later, Mr. Martin returned with the papers, spread them on the desk, and stood behind me while I skimmed the contents.
“Would you like a pen?” he said.
“Yes, thank you.”
Mr. Martin reached over to hand me a pen. I caught him studying the back of my head, as if trying to decide which segment of my brain would make the most delectable appetizer.