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Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller

The uncontainability of each of these remarkable collections published by Rose Metal Press suggests the exuberance of the flash fiction form itself, including the way in which, despite its small size, it pushes past its own borders and into the territory of something larger and impossible to confine.

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"A wonderful range of voices comes at you from this collection of flash fictions with stories that haunt, that tell of grit and love and loss and longing with the kind of detail and patience that makes your teeth ache."

– Sherrie Flick, author of I Call This Flirting

"With a collection of collections like They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, you begin to get a feel for an entire generation of writers."

– Robert Shapard, coeditor of Sudden Fiction Latino

"What a fantastic collection. Wow! What emerges is the sense of the possibilities of compression and conviction, each piece complete in itself, connected to the whole."

– Randall Brown, author of Mad to Live

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They Could No Longer Contain Themselves

Story Focus: "Watermelon" by Mary Miller

07/14/11

I was a choir geek in high school. Our show uniforms luckily bore no sequins (I’m not as partial to wearing sequins as Tim Jones-Yelvington), but none the less, every year the show tuxedo, the bright red and black stripes of the vest shimmering, the jazz hands, the choreography. It was really nothing like you see on Glee, and for that, I’m glad.

My choir teacher was the stereotypical effeminate male choir teacher. He was not afraid to get involved in the lives of his students, to care about them, to invite them over for voice coaching. In high school, my shoes tended to be on the shaggy side. I would wear Chuck Taylors until the canvas was in tatters. Not because I was poor (though we were), but because that shit was punk rawk in the mid-late 90s. I remember once my teacher, we’ll call him Mac since his last name was particularly Scottish, quietly took me aside one day after class and asked me if I needed new shoes.

“Oh. No,” I said, “I actually have a new pair at home. I just like these.”

Mac looked doubtful, so I wore them the next day to prove the point, and promptly returned to the old and tattered pair until they completely fell apart.

That’s just the kind of guy Mac was. But of course, when you have that kind of guy teaching at a high school, you get the stories. I was once told buy someone that they’d gone over to Mac’s house for something and saw him in the pool implicatingly close with a boy. I was told by another someone to keep my guard up during my conversations with Mac in an independent study class I had with him for music theory.

You get stories like Mary Miller’s “Watermelon” in They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, that begins:

Mr. Fuller was the new choir teacher. He had a round face and a love of boys.Before we sang, he had us lie on our backs and breathe in the icy waters.Feel the waves lick your neck, he’d say, the sting of peppermint in theback of your throat. Your boat’s collapsed and you didn’t think you’dneed a life preserver. Feel the pressure build. It builds and builds, likewhen you love someone so much your heart could burst, your heart could fucking burst under the weight of it.

After he drowned us, he’d make us form a train and rub each other’s shoulders. This went on for months and nobody saying anything.

Miller never goes so far as to say any concrete details about Mr. Fuller, and the story takes a turn to focus more on the relationship between the narrator and another troubled boy. But it’s the implication in that last line that brings back all these memories of high school and Mac and how he straddled the teacher/student relationship. “Straddled” was probably a bad choice of wording there.

Mac saw my mother’s obituary in the paper a couple days after she died. He made the hour drive to the parlor where her body was shown. He hugged me. He hugged me then, and he hugged me in high school–important moments like after not placing with a solo at Regionals, my breakdown in the hallway after, like after graduation. I never thought anything of it then, and I don’t now. Before he left the showing, he extended his hand to shake, and when I took it, there was a $50 bill in it.

“Don’t spend this on bills,” he said. “Don’t spend it on groceries or tuition or anything responsible. Spend it on something that’ll help you forget for awhile.”

He hugged me again, gave again his condolences, and left the parlor. That’s the last time I saw Mac. With the money, I did what you’d expect me to do, what he probably expected me to do. I got to forget everything for a night, and I’ll always thank Mac for that.

I know you’re probably thinking it. You’re probably thinking I’m going to turn this post on its head and tell you next how I saw him in the news a year or 2 later, accused of sexual misconduct or something of the sort. But that’s not what happened. Mac is still alive, and perhaps retired now. I could pay him a visit. I probably should. Mac meant a lot to me when I needed a mentor to mean a lot to me.

I’m not sure why we were so cruel in high school, to ourselves or to those who truly want to help us become more than who we were then. I’m sure if Mac is still teaching, he still gets all the same stories told about him in hushed tones. I hope he never hears of those stories. I hope he never finds this post. I hope he stays the way he is, and continues to affect the lives of students like he affected my life, students willing to believe in him more than in the cruelty of classmates.

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20 Comments

  1. Angie Spoto said on 07/08/11 at 2:01 pm Reply

    I actually had a teacher like that too, a science teacher in middle school, who, years later, I heard was fired (only rumors, I don’t know) because she was gay. I should add that I went to a very conservative religious middle school. But she was a great teacher (she got me into track and field and always encouraged me to be better), and I’ll always remember her as such.

    Reply

    Mezzo-Soprano said on 07/08/11 at 2:17 pm

    My choir director stole expensive items from the band and orchestra conductors, then moved a student into her house to “save” him from his heathen mother. We said she was grooming him to be a husband to her daughter. She was fired for a lot of reasons, but it never made the news.

    Chris Newgent said on 07/08/11 at 3:25 pm

    That’s crazy, Mezzo! Yeah. No real scandals like that at my school, except for a couple of sexual misconduct things with a couple coaches. Also, one of my English teachers had married a guy she had as a student, but a few years after he’d graduated.

    Ashley C Ford said on 07/08/11 at 3:44 pm

    This post reminds me so much what a lucky kid I was. Statistically, being a black woman who grew up with a parent in prison, the other parent single with three more children and never making more than 30,000 a year, I shouldn’t have graduated high school, let alone be on my way to finishing my degree. I should have dropped-out (probably because of pregnancy) and ended up playing the role of somebody’s version of the “Welfare Queen”

    At every turn in school I had a teacher there to mentor me. I loved school, because there was always someone at school who loved me. A parental figure. In middle school I had Miss McKanna who kept me after class and asked me why I was bombing tests for books she knew I’d read. She took the time to convince me there was nothing wrong with being smart.

    Mr. Martin kept me after school every day and in exchange for my writing either one poem or one story, he would give me two things I loved: a Mountain Dew and a Newspaper. At the end of the school year, before I moved on to high school, he laminated and bound all of those stories in a book for me. Years later, he would be my youngest brothers elementary school teacher. When I visited his classroom, I left with armfuls of books.

    Ms. Wagner was my middle school choir teacher. She was in her 40’s and at first gruff and stubborn. Then she loved me. And she was soft and beautiful. She gave me piano lessons for $5 a week, which I paid off by copying music for her before and after school. She let me stay in her office all morning the day I found out about Matthew Shepherd and starting having panic attacks thinking the same thing might happen to my brother. She was did not have children. so on Mother’s Day I made a card and had the entire class sign it in secret. When we gave it to her, we sang “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You”. She was so good at loving us.

    Mr. Caffee was my marching band director. For five summers this man taught me to do everything with my whole heart. He taught me about responsibility and loving yourself so others can. He sat with me on a marching field on damp grass for an hour so I could see my first shooting star. When I told him he was the closest thing I’d ever had to a real dad, he hugged me and said nothing would make him prouder than having someone like me for a daughter.

    Finally, there was Miss Reinking. Oh, Miss Reinking. She was a young single woman who loved books, fashion, and music. I wrote an “article” about fashion for a hypothetical newspaper in her freshman English class and she returned it to me with an A, a copy of the latest Vogue, and a note that said simply, “Ashley Ford, you are a writer.” The coolest person I’d ever met just told me I was a writer. All I’d ever truly wanted to be. I could have died. When she moved to Chicago to be with the man of her dreams, she left me the diamond ring she used to wear on her right hand and said, “Don’t ever be with anyone because you want the ring. You already have a diamond.”

    I know that was a lot, but this post brought it all back to me. My parents have not been able to offer me much support in my life, but I have never lacked parental support. I’m just so fucking grateful. I had to tell it all. I couldn’t slight any of these people by not telling it all.

    Dawn. said on 07/12/11 at 11:21 pm

    Wow, that was really beautiful Ashley. Thank you for sharing. They all sound like amazing people.

  2. Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 2:57 pm Reply

    This is a beautiful post, Chris. Thanks for sharing the story of Mac with us.

    I don’t know why children are so cruel either, so taken with idle gossip. Maybe it’s because sex is new to them, and they are looking for it in every corner. Maybe it’s because they feel insecure and have to transfer their discomfort with themselves onto someone else.

    You should visit Mac. I had a teacher in high school who literally changed my life (when I was wasting away to physically nothing, he was the only one who got through to me), and I always meant to write to him to let him know how much his concern meant to me. My story has a more typical ending: I found out recently that he died. I really wish I had sent that letter.

    Reply

    Chris Newgent said on 07/08/11 at 3:09 pm

    Sorry to hear about the passing of your teacher, but I’m glad to know he was able to reach you, change you for the better.

    I sent Mac a letter a few years ago, thanking him for everything. I’m not sure if he ever wrote back. I bounced around residences so much in college, it’s highly likely his response, if written, was lost in the mail somewhere, unable to find me.

    Emily Lackey said on 07/08/11 at 8:18 pm

    At least you know he got yours!

  3. Molly Gaudry said on 07/08/11 at 3:12 pm Reply

    The choir teacher I had, that I remember, was a large woman with a large chest. She was the much-older version of my junior high Spanish teacher, whose name rhymed with Mammary Glands. Sorry, Chris. That’s all I’ve got re: choir teachers, some random segue into my junior high Spanish teacher?

    On the other hand, I’ve got more for this story, which I loved. The opening you quoted is spectacular. I remember reading this and thinking, Damn, Mary is at Texas, right? She’s a Michener Fellow. And I was like, Good for her! And the final lines of this story are killer. I just . . . man, this story gave me chills; almost every line gave me chills. Mary’s awesome. I cannot wait to read more and more from her for years to come.

    Reply

  4. Mary Miller said on 07/08/11 at 4:31 pm Reply

    This is so fun! I love hearing about everyone’s favorite teachers/mentors.
    Thanks for posting this, Chris.

    Reply

  5. Jordan Blum said on 07/08/11 at 10:35 pm Reply

    This post reminded me of my Health teacher in 8th grade. HIs name was Mr. Lee and he was basically a flamboyant Sammy Davis Jr. Anyway, he WAS a pervert – one day he had us sit in a circle and discuss the “changes” we went through during puberty. I remember one girl saying, “I got bigger,” and he said, “what do you mean?” As if he didn’t know. As if he had to embarrass her (and really all of us) with such awkward moments. I was disgusted with him then, and I am now.

    As for a teacher that I could look up to, I can’t really think of one. Sure I had a lot that I liked and bonded with and most likely missed after I left their class, but none really shaped me or had a profound impact on me or went the extra mile for me.

    I suppose if I had to pick any of them, I’d pick my graduate school professors like Carla Spataro and Randall Brown. By the time you get to grad school, the hierarchy isn’t really present – you respect that the professor is the boss, but really, you’re contemporaries and equals. You’re learning together, and many of my grad school professors spoke to me like friends. We could talk about anything with any language we wanted.

    Reply

  6. DK said on 07/09/11 at 12:37 am Reply

    A girl I was pining over in high school had an affair with our 60-year-old ex-biker history teacher that only ended when her dad found out and threatened him with a shotgun. She dropped out of school after that and I haven’t seen her since.

    High school was weird.

    Reply

    Emily Lackey said on 07/10/11 at 10:38 am

    Best comment ever.

    Jordan Blum said on 07/12/11 at 12:00 pm

    How is this not a FF piece yet?

    Dawn. said on 07/12/11 at 11:26 pm

    I second Jordan’s question, DK. That is just too juicy to pass up writing about.

  7. Sean said on 07/11/11 at 12:31 pm Reply

    Hmmm..this sure did bring back HS memories. We had a football coach that looked EXACTLY like Patrick Swayze and dated the rumors about him dating the more beautiful senior girls abounded. I know one day he opened the trunk of his car and handed a girl a dress. That was odd.

    One substitute teacher kept telling us all day about how she was once a model. She was very insistent. Then she–groan–brought out a portfolio, very NSFW. It was crazy! We were 10th graders. Anyway, she came back the next day and fainted in class. Then some NARK leaked the word about the photos and they fired her. That was a great two days, though. One shot was her naked on a motorcycle. She was so proud to show us.

    Odd.

    I had a weird relationship with my Am History teacher. Not sexual, at all. She just liked me WAY too much. She told me halfway through the class that I didn’t need to do any of the assignments if I didn’t want. She told me I could just bring books and read to myself (I did this a lot, as she knew) and I would get a A. The final day of class she gave me a book, an expensive hardback political book about the Vietnam War. Anyway.

    Our Chemistry professor wore the same shirt everyday, a pale, washed out button down with stains at the armpits. He used a stapler to close the sleeves. The button were long gone.

    Well…

    Reply

    Angie Spoto said on 07/11/11 at 7:08 pm

    I thought MY high school had some interesting characters!

    Dawn. said on 07/12/11 at 11:24 pm

    Sean, you just made me jealous. All of those teachers sound hilariously awesome.

  8. Jordan Blum said on 07/12/11 at 12:04 pm Reply

    I just remembered another teacher. This one was a Spanish Professor at Rider U. I totally forget her name. Anyway, she was pretty young and attractive. Call it speculation, but my friend Nick and I always thought she was flirting with the male athletes in the class. I still remember one day she wore a fairly transparent white button-up shirt with a turquoise bra below it. Now, maybe it was just because my 19 year old mind was intrigued that a professor would dress like that, but there was definitely a sense that she wanted to get some attention from the guys in the class (and probably the whole campus).

    Reply

  9. Jessica said on 07/14/11 at 11:05 pm Reply

    My favorite high school teacher was Jason Prasifka, the assistant band director. One day, there was a massive monsoon of a rainstorm and I came into jazz band practice soaking wet, twenty minutes late. Being the lead trumpet, everyone kind of had to wait for me. He glances over his shoulder, gives me that ‘what’s up?’ nod, and said, ‘so, I see you really are a wetback.’ I smiled. Several years later, we bumped into each other at a Kroger and exchanged lost children stories – he had a stillborn or a baby pass shortly after birth; I had a miscarriage.

    Another memorable teacher, god I forget her name, called every student ‘lambchop’ and had a strange OCD regarding anyone touching her desk. Germaphobe. I don’t know whatever happened to her.

    Nothing beat the time my mom was substitute teaching my class in, probably, 4th grade. I was such an angel in school, one of the nerds. For some reason, I thought I could act up in class because she was there. That didn’t go over well that evening. I told her the movie that we watched was boring.

    Reply

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