The air is thick with anxiety and sweat as it drips onto the navy-speckled carpet of the classroom. The usual sounds break the silence: nervous murmurs, the panicked shuffling of index cards, Mr. Sherman’s lumbering footsteps as he makes his way to his desk, his bad knee making his foot flop like a dead fish against the floor.
His baby-blue baseball cap worn backwards matches the plaid threads of his slightly-loose short-sleeved button-down shirt. It flutters as he drops into his black swivel chair, grabs the green teacher’s edition of our vocabulary workbook, and announces the game of silent ball. We climb on top of our desks, both annoyed and mildly impressed that he has turned a beloved classroom game into a source of stress.
By this point in the year, we know the rules: Mr. Sherman will throw the ball then read the definition to the unlucky soul who catches it. We have been trained to respond with the proper pronunciation of the vocabulary word, then its correct spelling, two synonyms, two antonyms, and the number of the syllable that houses the stress of the word as well as the part of speech. A misstep in responses results in elimination from the game and five points docked from the quiz. Collectively, we know that dropping the ball or speaking out of turn will have the same effects.
Mr. Sherman has a reputation for being the best and worst teacher at this school. His retro-lecture style where he crosses his feet one over the other on the edge of his desk and delves into details about author backgrounds is revered and feared by all. Pop quizzes are a normal occurrence, loose-leaf pages filled with random facts about Kurt Vonnegut or F. Scott Fitzgerald turned in for an immediate grade.
Did you know that J.D Salinger became a hermit in a cabin in New Hampshire after the assassination of John Lennon?
Did you know that a group called “MasculinistsforTedHughes” etched Sylvia Plath’s maiden name off her headstone and carved “Hughes” into the rock?
Did you know that Eugene O’Neill was born and died in a hotel room?
Blake catches the ball first, the tips of his ears turning the same shade of red as his hair.
Mr. Sherman reads, “the wasting away of a body organ or tissue; any progressive decline or failure.”
Blake responds, “Atrophy – a-t-r-o-p-h-y – can be used as a noun or a verb – umm…” Stuck on synonyms and antonyms, he gives the ball to Victoria before he sits down at his desk and fiddles with the strings of his hoodie.
Victoria continues, “Synonyms – degeneration, deterioration. Antonyms – growth, maturation. The stress is on the first syllable.” She remains on the desk, stockinged legs swinging above the floor. She tosses the ball to Katie who gets “jocular” right, then Sarah successfully answers with “grouse,” Danielle handles “pusillanimous,” with ease, and Tyler responds with “frenetic” before throwing the ball to me. Mr. Sherman licks his lips, and with his slight lisp reads, “biting or caustic in thought, manner, or style; sharply or bitterly harsh.”
Me, right now, at this very moment, I want to say, but my mind goes blank. I feel the ball in my hands, its squishy surface unable to relieve my stress. The index cards I spent hours intricately crafting, organizing, and studying disappear from my mind as if waking up from a dream. Silently, as the name of the game suggests, I hand the ball to Christian and slide into my seat. He responds, “Mordant – m-o-r-d-a-n-t – adjective with the stress on the first – ”
I don’t know this yet, but next year, when I ask Mr. Sherman to write me a letter of recommendation for college, he will apologize and cite his teaching contract, claiming that he doesn’t do things that aren’t required of him. I will hear rumors that he wrote letters for Victoria and Katie, and I will wonder if he’s holding a grudge – squeezing my future, like a soft, red ball -in his hands. After graduation when I visit my high school for an alumni day panel to answer college questions for rising seniors, Mr. Sherman won’t be there. I will hear the rumor that he lives in a cabin in the wilderness of New Hampshire now after being asked graciously to resign. His classroom will still house his knick-knacks: a poster for the movie Grosse-Pointe Blank, copies of Catcher in the Rye with hand-drawn covers made by former students, and a soft, red stress ball on the corner of his desk.
Years later as my own students are studying for a vocabulary quiz, I click through the online version of the workbook I used not so long ago, reminiscing on a time when I was mesmerized by the feeling of a new word in my mouth. I come across the word “mordant” and silently wonder if this program has changed at all since I was a student. I notice this online workbook is marked “Level G,” an equivalence to 12th grade reading levels. I smile at my computer; Mr. Sherman had us studying words for the grade level above us. And I wonder why that was – if there was malice in his mind or if he simply believed in us more than we ever did.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She also earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been a nonfiction editor for magazines such as Brevity and Variant Literature. Her work can be viewed in The Citron Review, Complete Sentence, Porcupine Literary, and elsewhere.