In the Hardest Class Ever Taught, Flags Get Stuck

Submitted into Contest #194 in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “Back to square one.”... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction High School

In the hardest class ever taught, we return to square one over and over, go back, top of the page, redo checkboxes, fill in the same blanks again. Communication deduces into physical gestures and emotive symbols, culminates in idiomatic explosions. In the hardest class ever taught, learning struggles.

I taught the hardest class tough lessons about the life cycle of a chrysalis. After instructing students to highlight where they found proof butterflies come from cocoons, I read the text aloud, modeled the activity, but looked up to a student drawing a long stripe of highlighter across his forehead.

“What did you do?” I fumed.

“You said to highlight where we found the answer…I found it in my brain.”

Another student, the first of many siblings to follow, had a hand which raised for everything. Arm in militant upthrust, confusion about the program, "Teacher! Where do I enter text?"

"Easy. Insert here." In the spirit of lorem ipsum dolor, I banged out a nonsensical message on his keyboard.

"I don’t know what that message says.”

“You don’t have to know. It’s gibberish.”

“I don’t know gibberish. No one taught me that language.”

But it seems I was always teaching the hardest class appropriate language, like after students wrote thank you cards for receiving a school emblem decorated sweatshirt. In stacked, angular handwriting, one student printed, “Thank you. Now I look sexy. Every day.” I suggested ‘sexy’ might not be the best choice of word when writing a school administrator.

“Why not?” the student blinked. “It is in every TV show and commercial for things that are pretty.”

In the hardest class ever taught, the most shy, seemingly innocent of them all answered a quiz question about pollination. I returned the assessment and pointed to a scrawled written description of a dance, which led to bees climbing into a flowers, “motorboating” it, and fleeing.

“Motorboating. What exactly did you mean here?”

The student leveled his gaze, “Doesn’t motorboat mean to shake something?”

Not long after the quiz incident, a younger student rushed through the classroom door, stopped at my desk, cheeks flushed, panting a question.

“What’s a virgin?” he whispered. I folded hands to recite a dictionary definition while the young student contemplated into the distance. Nodding, the he muttered, “So a virgin is someone like me.”

But his friend chimed in from the opposite corner of the classroom, clacking, “You’re no virgin, fool! I saw you eat meat in the cafeteria!”

The hardest class ever taught misconstrued vocab a lot. They struggled with proper nomenclature. We argued about it right before Thanksgiving break. Students united and called Black Friday a holiday.

“Black Friday is not a holiday.” I chalked the sentence on the board.

The students in the room cocked heads in unison, “But why? We get a day off of school for it.” All nodded emphatically. “Stores stay open all night in celebration.”

“Big sales!” The tallest dinged.

This Thanksgiving is different, though. The hardest class I taught doesn't know. I don’t teach anymore. I resigned, then moved, in the middle of a pandemic.

My students are now grown; I remember each one. Even the hardest of them all, one so angry, so combative, so frail, small, and weak. Whenever I gave a compliment, or required after well-being, this student turned his head, glared sideways, grumbled, “You don’t know me.”

Perhaps. But I knew that student inquired after my food. If I offered to share, he'd scoff and throw hands up in the air. So I started leaving snacks out and announcing, “Who wants this before I throw it away?” With a dismissive shrug, the hardest student always shoved the food into his backpack.

I repeated the same method when I noticed he did not have a proper jacket to wear. So I snipped a tag, wrinkled one up, and reported to the classroom, “No one's claimed this in months. If you know someone who can use it, take it. Otherwise, it will be donated.” The hardest student snatched the jacket and held it up.

“It will fit my uncle,” the student shrugged. But it was him wearing it the very next day.

In the hardest class ever taught, I took students outside to conduct a wind experiment with flags handcrafted in the classroom. One of the flags became tangled high in a tree. From below, we watched the kite struggle against the branches, fighting in angles and degrees. The yellow and blue crunched by leaves. The flag dissipated. We held our breath. All went still. And then then from underneath the canopy, the flag floated to the ground like a tear. Shortly after, a student followed, silently dropping to feet.

“You can’t do that!” I screamed. “What if something happened to you?”

The student shrugged, presented the flag. “What is wrong,” the student quipped. “That was easy.”

I hung those flags from the ceiling in my classroom, like one thousand paper cranes flapping in ventilated air currents. They remained there until the very end. I didn’t take much the day I cleaned out my classroom and turned in the keys. But I packed up the flags handcrafted by those students and put the box into the back of my Jeep.

I also kept the heart-shaped snow globe and the student drawn cartoon. I pressed a gifted rose between the pages of our textbook; its color and beauty still wax-paper preserved. My daughter still holds the stuffed animal you pooled together in a surprise baby shower. She named him Guy. Guy doesn’t look much like a sheep anymore; he has no more stuffing. I don’t mind. Neither does she because Guy is a part of each and every one of those students.

Once, in the hardest class taught, a student waved scissors around like a weapon. “Scissors,” I demonstrated, “Cut paper.” The student frowned, buried his head into elbows, and refused to speak. That happened a lot during those first few weeks. Years later, I saw him in a drive-thru. Handing me a soda through a window the student asked, “Teacher, miss! Why are you crying?”

He had just shared his acceptance to the local university. I shed tears of pride. Running into him years after he sat in the hardest class made me recall the rest of his peers.

Like the twins with the same sounding names who sat me in the classroom after school one day. They covered the windows and released long wavy hair. Sitting in a circle, they giggled under harsh cinderblock fluorescents, and sung the lyrics of epics. They wrapped my head in silken scarves the colors of moon and sky, and breathed mythical tunes about a white, marbled shrine. I dream of it.

And the student with tiny, thin plaits and a gold nose ring. I caught her reading during a lecture. She coughed, a tear slipped, and she handed over the book with an apology, its cover revealing a boy in flip flops shouldering artillery. Swiping eyes, she whispered, “I relate to the story.” Then she shared hers, revealing portraits of reconciliation and the strength of forgiveness. She gave me a card at commencement; I still have it.

“I worked hard to graduate.”

I received another card once. A different year. It came from Paloma, right before a break. I read it on an airplane, choked through shared tragedy. If I’m honest, the pain is still too raw to reveal what she wrote in there.

In the hardest class I ever taught, we labored to communicate, to understand each other's wants and values. We ducked misprints, painted white over errors, turned blind eyes to misspellings. In the beginning, I cursed frustration as there seemed no end to correcting idioms. Yet, at the end of every single class period, despite the day’s challenges, in the hardest class ever taught, each student smiled, looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you, teacher-miss.”

I could never understand why my students said that. It felt uncomfortable to hear. I should have been doing the thanking. From square one, over and over again, from the top of blank pages, those students taught me. Every day.

And they barely spoke the language.

April 22, 2023 02:16

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Helen A Smith
15:23 Apr 27, 2023

Hi Ean A wonderful story demonstrating your love for your students; how you etched their experiences into your memory and drew treasure from them years later. Sometimes it’s the hardest things that reveal the most about ourselves, proving how we learn from others, even when we don’t expect to. The ones that seem the hardest hit the hardest. All of them unique and learning in their different ways. These students will never forget your lessons drawing from them years later, sometimes when they least expect it. Good teachers give something ...


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Viga Boland
14:36 Apr 27, 2023

Another brilliant story from you Ean. How much I could relate as both a former teacher, mother, writer…all the titles we women wear. And finishing this by thanking your tough teachers? Master stroke. Another winning or shortlisted story, no doubt. 👏


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RJ Holmquist
18:59 Apr 25, 2023

Moving mini portraits of your students and a poignant look at the inside of a teacher's heart. Made me reflect on all I owe to teachers who inspired me.


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09:51 Apr 24, 2023

The title intrigued me , so I read. I am a teacher myself and can identify with tough teaching moments and students who see things differently. "In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn." An interesting read. Thanks for sharing.


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Mary Bendickson
05:01 Apr 22, 2023

What a teacher you must be!


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Amanda Lieser
21:52 Aug 18, 2023

Hi Ean, What a charming story of the power students can have on teachers. For so many of us, we can name an impactful teacher-whether for better or worse. But it’s truly touching to hear that the same can be named for the teachers. I loved every awkward question, every touching story, and every life lesson in this story. Nice work!!


Éan Bird
22:59 Sep 14, 2023

The students represented in this piece are very dear to me, so for you to "see" them means a lot. Truly, thank you for the comment.


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Mike Panasitti
22:43 May 29, 2023

The most touching lessons learned in the hardest class ever taught. Your writing never fails to move me.


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