by Charles Baxter
from The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
I really enjoyed this short story, published in 1985, about an alarmingly unusual substitute fourth-grade teacher in rural Michigan. It’s the kind of story that makes you think about the difference between fact and fantasy, of the uncomfortable strangeness of stepping back and forth between the two, and the strong desire to believe in something excitingly unlikely.
When Mr. Hibler develops a cough, Miss Ferenczi steps in as the new substitute teacher. Everything about her is strange, her clothes, the deep lines on her face, and her curious way of talking to the children. They can’t decide what to think about her, but they listen to her ideas, which sometimes seem like they could be true.
When John Wazny makes a mistake with his times tables, Miss Ferenczi doesn’t correct him. Instead she tells him, “Well now. That was very good.” But the children are quick to point out the mistake. They say it can’t be when she tells them that six times eleven can sometimes equal sixty-eight. It’s a “substitute fact,” she says, and then she asks the class, “Do you think that anyone is going to be hurt by a substitute fact? Will the plants on the windowsill be hurt? Your dogs and cats, or your moms and dads?” And when the children have no answer, she adds, “So, what’s the problem?”
They are uncomfortable, but they want to hear what she says. “We listened,” says Tommy. “No one tried to stop her.” Over two days, Miss Ferenczi introduces the class to a new way of thinking and they are secretly and tentatively excited by it. She talks about the Egyptians and pyramids, about planets and diamonds, Beethoven and Mozart, and of angels. She tells them of the time an old man in Egypt showed her a strange animal, a monster, she says, half bird, half lion, called a gryphon. When Carl Whiteside says he thinks Miss Ferenczi is lying about the gryphon, Tommy runs to a dictionary at home for proof of its existence. He shouts with triumph when he finds the word.
All is seemingly forgotten when Mr. Hibler comes back and the class returns to the predictable routine of school. The sun fades the Halloween display and Tommy secretly measures the shorter days with tiny marks on the wall.
Tommy’s heart pounds when Miss Ferenczi returns in December. This time she brings Tarot cards and invites the children to hear their futures. The story turns with these predictions and Tommy has to decide what to believe.
I like how the author makes subtle references to what life is like for Tommy and people in his town. The dirt roads, unemployment, the heap of rusted cars near the playground, and the ordinary realities at Tommy’s house: a hollering baby brother, a mother who is busy in the kitchen, who wipes her forehead with the back of her and tells him, “You have chores to do.” Next to these images are Miss Ferenczi’s fantastical ideas. Is there any question why Tommy and his class would want to believe her?
This is a great view into the small coming-of-age moments of childhood. Baxter has a terrific way of showing what’s important to kids and of the innocent, but surprisingly sophisticated way children think.
I especially like Baxter’s reference to the gryphon and how he compares this mythical creature to Miss Ferenczi. I also read in an interview that Baxter once had a teacher with the same long lines on her face and I enjoyed his comparison to Pinocchio, a puppet/boy known for telling tales. These are the things that make great storytelling!
Is the gryphon real or a myth?
Is the teacher telling the truth?
I also like the references to what schools were like back in the day, the ditto machine and the textbook Distant Lands and Their People, a book I’m pretty sure I remember from my own school days!
Charles Baxter is an award-winning American author of five novels, many short stories, poetry and essays. His most recent novel, The Soul Thief, was published in 2008. Gryphon – New and Selected Stories was published in 2011. A graduate of Macalester College, he earned a graduate degree at State University of New York – Buffalo. He began his teaching career at Wayne State University in Detroit and later taught English at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. He currently teaches at the University of Minnesota.
Here are some links to Charles Baxter’s website:
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