“Flexible Groups,” by Desmond White

Dec 20th, 2016 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

Mrs. Whittaker paused from grading papers to appreciate the room. The kids were engaged in what’s called Flexible Learning, working in what is called Flexible Groups, to accomplish Flexible Goals, based on a Flexible Curriculum. The class almost ran itself, although Whittaker had a very important role as professional educator—to applaud loudly these children’s talents, to cultivate their unique gardens, to preserve and prepare their individual snowflakes only to release them at the end of the year, ice crystals now advanced in length and complexity, for three months of summer and another teacher’s care.

Whittaker’s classroom complimented this theme with an arras of art work. On the back wall were the “ABC‘s of Shakespeare,” in which each student had taken a letter, such as A or G, and found a special Shakespearean property beginning with that letter, such as Anne Hathaway or Gloucester. There was only one imperfection on the whole board—B, which had been given to Shelby, was for Billy, a gross abbreviation of William. Of course, B was for Bard, and Whittaker winced every time she saw Billy on the wall, drawn in pencil (not even marker!), without an image or passage.

On another wall were ribbons of six-word stories, each as sharp and rare as diamonds, except for one rough patch, where a student (Shelby) had written a seven-word story about an unexceptional Spring Break spent at Grandma’s.

Today, the students were composing, culling, cut-and-pasting, calculating, creating, and choreographing their Final Projects for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, some selected from a menu, some invented by the students and teacher-approved. Long gone were the days of paper and pencil tests, even 3-5 page essays. Now, Jia-Ling Pan worked on a line of faces made out of clay and based on the geometry and conclave eye sockets of African Woyo masks. Lim Haberly was writing a twenty-page critique on the SAS Survival Handbook, a long reigning staple in survival literature (no longer!). Two students were working in tandem to design a course curriculum for the boys on the island—Yu Jeong was revising the Dress Code and Sung Wong was researching grade level expectations. Lowki Ou was writing a gender-bent manuscript, called Lady of the Flies, and Marli Diesel was sketching a 1:25,000 topographic map. By the book stile, keeping her voice down, T. C. Suwabe interviewed Golding’s daughter Judith on Google Hangouts about her troubled childhood and the anger that drove her to write a memoir, Children of Lovers. By the pencil sharpener, Dany Damaske, Greg Nice, and Kissy Shorrock held a round table discussion, recorded by field reporter (and President of the Yearbook Club) Toni Ngrule, on the inherent errors in jumbling together biography and fictitious prose. Jazz Kaye was just finishing his obituary for Piggy, Lima Hystry the trajectory and impact speed of Piggy’s fall, and Harris Soezay a water-color portrait of Virginia Tiger, the young graduate student who’d stolen Golding’s heart in his mid-fifties, to the discomfort of his (soon-to-be-deceased) wife. And Shelby—

Whittaker paused. Shelby was using markers and brown cardboard paper to draw Virginia Tiger, turning his head sharply to spy on Harris every few seconds. Whittaker felt a pang of shame when she also noted that Shelby’s desk was the same color as the student to his left —they were both bittersweet cherry fuchsia. How had she not noticed that she’d ordered two of the same color desks?

Whittaker had tried to be understanding about Shelby, but the boy was hopeless. While his peers were designing cell phone covers and using 3D printers to generate miniature battleships, Shelby couldn’t find a thesis in a one-sentence paragraph, cheated on tests by writing the answers on his desk (in pen), and only knew how to turn paper into basic paper airplanes (in comparison, Sindy once made a Boeing 787 Dreamliner out of solar panel tinsel. Theoretically, the plane could fly indefinitely, weather permitting). The only original idea Shelby ever had he plagiarized from a neighbor.

Now, Whittaker approached Shelby’s table. Harris frowned as if to say: “Do you see what Shelby’s doing?” and Shelby looked up at Whittaker, and then down at his work.

Whittaker took the cardboard artwork, folded it a few times, and ripped it into pieces. She gave the papers back to Shelby. “Now Shelby,” she said delicately, “plagiarism is a—well, it is a form of flattery, although it’s rather self-conceited. You do know what ‘self-conceited’ means, don’t you, Shelby?” The boy shook his head. “It means having an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Do you know what ‘self-importance’ means?” Nope. “What about ‘an exaggerated sense?’ No?” Not at all. “Look, Shelby, you were copying your neighbor, and that’s dangerous, selfish, and unethical. You know what ‘copying’ mean, yes?”

Shelby was getting it, but Whittaker felt the need to press on. “In my classroom, copying is stealing, and that’s not living up to the expectations we decided together—the whole class —in our Social Contract.” Whittaker pointed to a poster of classroom rules adorned with signed names, each its own multifaceted John Hancock of sorts. In the corner was a little x.

“Shelby,” said Whittaker. “Shelby, Shelby. Inside of you, there’s an individual crying to get out.”

“I don’t feel like an individual,” said Shelby.

“But you are, Shell. Well, technically, you are. You have a name. Although lots of people have the name Shelby. But in combination with your last name—”

“There are fifty other people with his first and last name in this state alone,” said Marli, looking up from her phone.

“You must have some kind of personalized middle name,” said Whittaker, fearing to look at the attendance sheet.

“I’m—I’m sad,” said Shelby, wiping a tear.

“Oh, honey, you’re not sad. That’s what Maria is feeling. You’re just being difficult.”

As the teacher moved away, the students moved in. “Nobody likes you,” said Lim Haberly. “Maybe that’s your special talent—being unlikable,” said Yu Jeong. “Nah, George is unlikable, too. He breathes too loudly from his left nostril,” said Sung Wong. “And he eats soup with a spoon and scrapes the bottom of the bowl. It hurts my ears,” said Lowki Ou. “Maybe Shelby breathes too loudly with his right nostril?” said T.C. Suwabe. They listened. Nothing. Shelby breathed just like James and Sindy. “You annoy me,” said Dany Damaske. “You bother everyone, even Mrs. Whittaker,” said Toni Ngrule. “Maybe that’s how I’m unique? I’m annoying?” said Shelby.

The boys and girls of Classroom 208 sat in surprise. What Shelby had said made a lot of sense. It dawned on them in different ways that this was exactly what made Shelby unique. Lim Haberly did a backflip. Yu lit a match. Sung, who’d set up a circuit connecting a halogen lamp to neural discharges, had a lightbulb ding above her head. And Mrs. Whittaker slipped back to Shelby’s desk and grabbed his shoulders. “Yes! Yes! That’s it, Shelby! Shelby, you genius (along with Paul and Lindi). You could be the most special of all of us, because none of us are annoying. Not one of us. You bring us together, in a way.”

“I’m sad,” said Shelby, again.

“No, you’re not—not really—because Maria’s pet turtle died.” The teacher’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you got me again. Good work, Shelby! Good work!”

Mrs. Whittaker smiled warmly and patted his head. Before returning to her desk, she gave him a new sheet of brown cardboard paper. “Go ahead. Do you.”

Shelby, in rebellion, tried drawing his own version of Virginia Tiger, but after a few tries, started peeking at Harris’ canvas.


Desmond White is a beleaguered high school teacher in Houston, Texas.

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