“Our Education” by Lincoln Michel



Vol. 9, No. 1


imageSo many of childhood fantasies are, from the perspective of a worry-prone adult, nightmares: running away, becoming an orphan, living in a boxcar. Yet the realities of such disorder eventually trump our desire for it; any kid who has tried to run away knows the feeling of getting half way down the block with a backpack and thinking, in a word, crap. This is the moment in which we find the narrator of Lincoln Michel’s tale of scholastic anarchy, “Our Education.” He is trapped in a school from which the teachers have all disappeared, but in his case, there is no option to break the fantasy, to go home.

This earnest and cautious young student continues to work on his final assignment in secret, searching for clues of the teachers and their legacy. “I cannot say what the lack of faculty means,” he thinks, in a deliciously ambiguous turn of phrase. Yet even to speculate on such matters is forbidden. “The concept of the teachers is absurd. What kind of teacher would leave their students?” says the tyrant of the group, former football team captain Clint Bulger. “Such a teacher would be no teacher at all.” And here Lincoln reveals an ontological fissure, one of the many things he does so well: the teachers never existed because they failed to meet the definition of teachers.

All the while the teachers’ lounge, authority’s dark spaceship, is a tall, black column that sits at the center of the cafeteria. Some, who can’t believe the teachers have vanished, think they are holed-up inside, watching. Whenever a hero falls—Lance Armstrong dopes, Bill Clinton cheats, Martha Stewart commits insider trading—I can’t help but think of the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns it lonely eyes to you.” Because in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center—the vacuous teachers’ lounge around which the students, whether they like it or not, eat tater tots and run free.

Halimah Marcus
Co-Editor, Electric Literature

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Our Education

by Lincoln Michel

Recommended by Electric Literature

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TIME PASSES UNEXPECTEDLY or, perhaps, inexactly at the school. It’s hard to remember what semester we are supposed to be in. Several of the clocks still operate, but they don’t show the same time. The red bells, affixed in every room, erupt several times each day, yet the intervals between the disruptions wax and wane with an unknown algorithm. The windows are obscured by construction paper murals. Consequently, the sun rises and falls in complete ignorance of those of us attending the school. Many of us participated in the decorations in some lost point of childhood. A few of us still have dried glue under our fingernails.

In the room I sit in now, the windows are covered with a glitter and glue reenactment of the colonization of Roanoke by Sir Walter Raleigh. Outside of the window, who knows?

In my spare time, I write notes for an assignment on my education at the school. I’ve always believed that I’m destined for somewhere better. In my hidden heart, I hold hope that my essay will help me get out of the school.

My classmates laugh at me, even my second closest friend.

“You’ll never turn this in,” he says, grabbing at my notebook. “There will never be anyone to accept it!”

“Leave him alone,” Beanpole Paula says.

“Of course you defend him,” he says, winking at her from beneath his self-cropped brown hair.

Beanpole Paula gives my second closest friend a sharp shove. His shirt bears the logo of a rock band I’ve never heard. When he smiles, I see his braces are discolored with vending machine candy. What’s his name? Either Tommy or Timmy.

Obviously we no longer learn anything at the school or, perhaps more accurately, we learn many things, but not the things that we were meant to learn. We learn about love and pain and friendship. A few of us even learn about fornication, most by watching from afar (twice Carmichael, a small and sickly boy, and I have snuck behind the bleachers to watch the more muscular and nimble students tear off each other’s gym uniforms). History, mathematics, and biology are subjects lost to another time. Most of our textbooks have been repurposed for fuel. There is an ongoing fire in the back corner of the cafeteria.

I myself only have two books, novels long past their stamped due dates, which I keep tucked underneath spare clothes in the back of my locker.

Much of our hushed hallway discussion concerns the teachers. Surrounded by the pale orange lockers, nasty words are uttered. The whispering is merely a habit. The teachers are all dead. Or else they are sleeping. Or in hiding. All that is known is that the teachers have disappeared and the teachers’ lounge is barricaded from the inside.

After the lunch bell, I hurry back to the front hallway with Beanpole Paula. We have an armload of chicken sandwiches, no sauce.

“That was close,” she says.

Paula is almost six feet tall and walks with her back hunched over. I find her awkwardness endearing. She is, currently, my closest friend. We know that our arrangement might end as soon as tomorrow, so when we smile at each other there is a conspiracy in the air. We slap hands in celebration.

“We make a good team,” Paula says, pressing a sandwich to her mouth with both hands. “Let’s always stick together.”

Then Timmy interrupts us, rounding the corner with a half-eaten pizza slice.

Randal has staked the position that the disappearance of the teachers is a victory for the students.

“This school only ever existed to beat us down and prepare us for a world in which we were powerless and others were powerful. Homework is indoctrination, education a cog in the machine of the ruling class.”

Timmy cheers him on enthusiastically. “What can you learn from teachers and tests?” he hoots. “The whole system is fucked from the start.”

Beanpole Paula and Carmichael, on the other hand, hold a different point of view. They are distraught about our lack of teachers.

“What if the teachers have gone in search of better students?” Paula says. “What if we have been forsaken? Left behind?”

Despite beckoning from both sides, I don’t enter the debates. I cannot say what the lack of faculty means. I am, however, working to preserve my chances if the teachers do return. I want to believe that if they return, I will be chosen to graduate to a better place. This is why I work on the assignment in my spare time.

I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says: In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?

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