The Extrahuman Union

Short Story Memories – Commando

Posted on: February 15, 2011

A couple of years ago I collected all of the short stories that I’d written over the course of my adult life, from college graduation on, into a slim self-published volume called Shelley and Mira in the Land of the Shining Sun. I named the collection after the only one of the stories to have actually been “published” somewhere (a British webzine that has since ceased to exist). You can find that volume as a $3 electronic download or a more expensive paperback over at Lulu.

Each story is full of memories for me, of where, when and who I was when I wrote it. One of the stories, “Commando”, is about a lonely high school girl who is more or less stalked by another girl who wants to be her friend. I wrote that story when I was a high school English teacher, and in it I put a lot of what I thought about high school kids at the time.

I liked to have my top-level freshmen analyze short stories when I gave them exams, and one year I was feeling lazy and adventurous (this may have been the year I was fired) so I put “Commando” on their exam next to dull questions about Romeo and Juliet and Great Expectations. Of course, I needed to come up with some way of convincing them that I hadn’t just written a story for them to go over, that it was in fact a real story, so I cooked up a fishy background story for why this wasn’t in grainy photocopied-from-a-book type. A friend of mine was a writer, I said, and this was a story she made. I came up with a pen name for “her,” too: Susan Marigold. Marigolds are my favorite flowers (especially the orange ones), and my first name wasn’t Susan then so obviously, no one would ever suspect it was me.

(It’s funny, sometimes. That old AOL CD from a few posts back was sent to another “fake” name at my current address: Susan Aventara. My future haunts my past.)

The students took the exam and hated every minute of it. My exams were designed to be punishing, with lots of writing and very little multiple choice. They were a bitch to correct. When the students got to the story they had their questions, like What the f*** is this? I trotted out the backstory. One student saw through me immediately. Is this, he wondered slyly, something you wrote?

Ha ha, I said, thinking quickly. If I were to write a short story, would I show it to you? They accepted this readily. It was clear that we weren’t fond of one another.

They read the story and analyzed it, grudgingly. Pathetically, I’d asked them to tell me whether they thought it was a good story, and why. They were brutal. They thought it was dumb, they didn’t like the character, why were the other kids so mean, etc.? I couldn’t tell them that I’d based every mean kid on an amalgamation of all the horrible things I’d seen them all do. I went home, feeling bad.

But I edited that story, and included it in the book years later.

I’m not surprised my students saw through me. I was transparent in so many ways, even as I tried to hold myself tightly in. I was controlled and curt, mainly as a survival mechanism. I don’t think it’s exactly a coincidence that the protagonist was a quiet, damaged girl named Jane. When I taught, I did everything I could to put up a strong, confident face to my students, but every once in a while they could peer right through the walls to see her sitting there, staring back out at them.

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2 Responses to "Short Story Memories – Commando"

It’s lovely to learn more about what seems to be some of your formative years.

For what it’s worth, it sounds like you would be the sort of teacher I liked. I hated multiple-choice tests and loved essay.

I freely admit to being a less-than-stellar teacher. It was a career that was totally wrong for me, if only because I was an introvert and wasn’t all that fond of teenagers. In retrospect those are two very large things!

I liked essay questions as a student, too. That was my favorite kind of exam. I always dreaded the exams where there were nothing but, say, math problems with absolute right or wrong answers.

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