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Beating a Dead Stick
by Herbert Knapp
 
Barbara Butler teaches English in an urban high school in the 1980s where the students learn nothing and the faculty doesn’t care. Fed up with the collective dishonesty of her colleagues, she has decided to resign and tells the story of her last year of teaching in Beating a Dead Stick.

A student is raped in the book room but refuses to identify the rapist. Another student is murdered during a robbery at a convenience store near the school. There are rumors of a call-girl ring involving the students, but the faculty remains comically oblivious, and the administration insists all is well, even as the situation worsens.

When Barbara’s best friend, a transvestite math teacher, is beaten up but is too frightened to identify his attacker, she turns to a former student, now a grown-up detective, who helps discover the truth.

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Excerpt:
From Chapter 10
In the Faculty Lounge.
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At the table in the middle of the room, Clara Dingle (home ec.) was slicing a chocolate cake.
     Over in a corner, Phil Sitwell (geography) was reading the Wall Street Journal.
     And Lyle Doggett (chemistry) was lying on the couch with his eyes shut. Without opening them, he said, “Phil, don’t you have a class this period?”
     Phil rattled the newspaper to show he was reading faster.
     Clara, whose mouth was full, waved a greeting and pointed to the cake.
     I introduced Priscilla to the room in general.
     Lyle opened his eyes and raised one hand.
     Phil peeked over the top of his paper and said, “Hi.”
     We sat down at the table and I showed Pris how to grade the tests.
     “But don’t we have a key?”
     “I don’t use a key.”
     “But wouldn’t it be easier?”
     “I suppose.”
     Between bites of cake, Clara said, “I hear the pregnancy thing for the Johnson girl is for sure. Have you heard that? So who’s the father? Any ideas?”
     As if he had been cranked, Lyle began his familiar prophecy of the imminent overpopulation of the world, which would be accompanied by mass starvation, epidemics, universal pollution, religious frenzies, and nuclear wars.
     “We’ve got to face reality,” he said, gazing at the ceiling.
     Clara made a rabbit face at him, then silently offered me a slice of cake.
     “No, thank you.” And noticing that Pris had given a student credit for “banal” in the sentence, “The Constitution is a ‘banal’ document,” I leaned close and quietly told her we couldn’t give credit for that use of “banal.” She stiffened and insisted loudly that I was wrong. (So much for my effort to be tactful.) Trotting herself across the room to the big dictionary, she flipped its pages and read aloud: “‘boring, devoid of freshness or originality.’ Okay, that’s the Constitution, isn’t it? And down here it says . . . Well it says, ‘OF ban (see ban 2).’ Does that make sense? Anyhow ban 2 says, ‘a public proclamation or edict.’ That’s like the Constitution, right?”
     I said firmly, “‘Banal’ means ‘insipid’ or ‘trite.’ Do you think the Constitution is insipid or trite?”
     “I don’t know, I never read it, but some people might, and since we’re like multicultural, we’ve all got a right to our own language, right? That’s what the N.C.T.E. says. I had Garbahj in school. A.A. Garbahj. You don’t? Really? He was chairman of N.C.T.E.’s. committee on language development. And he’s been on TV because he’s the expert on tenth grade vocabulary. I had his seminar, and, see, it’s like I have to be me, and you have to be you, so if I use some word or something my way, that’s just me being me, and the same goes for you, because otherwise, you know, language gets to be a tool for oppression instead of expression, and that’s why we’re having this crisis until we get people free to communicate, even if they can’t, like, you know, do all old Miss Nitpicky’s social codes and password stuff.”
    “Old Miss Nitpicky?”
     She was stricken by the realization that I might be a real-life version of the fabled Nitpicky and immediately tried to apologize: “Aw, gee, gosh, uh, you know what I mean.” Squirming, she tented her eyebrows, signaling embarrassment, anguish, and submission.
     I went on grading.
     She looked woefully at Clara, appealing for help.
     Clara wanted to help but didn’t understand the problem, so she put a slice of cake on a scrap of wax paper and slid it towards me.
     I looked at her. She smiled and nodded, as if we secretly understood each other.
     “I’m on a diet,” I lied.
     “Ooo,” groaned Clara and Pris together.
     They understood “diet.”
     Over on the couch, Lyle spoke to the ceiling about how intelligent people could make the world a paradise if only some new plague would reduce the world’s population by a third.
     “AIDS?” he asked himself rhetorically. “No,” he answered himself, “it has to be something that will reduce the number of women in the childbearing age cohort.” He paused, then added with scientific sobriety, “Actually, this could be our opportunity to improve the gene pool. That’s where genetic engineering comes in.”
     The door banged open and in barged a red-faced Max Tinder.
     “We’ve GOT to get ORGANIZED!” he boomed.
     “Have some cake,” urged Clara, licking her fingertips.
     Max spun a chair around and sat down. Leaning over its back, he slapped the table and said, “Listen! The cops just busted a kid outa Ruby Remora’s class. Yeah, so I told old Windbag. I said, ‘This is an OSHA issue!’ Kids like that are threats to the safety and health of the workers, right?” Jabbing a finger at me, he shouted, “I’m right, right?”
     “What are you talking about?” I asked.
     “Here? In school? They arrested a st-student?” stammered Clara.
     “What’d they arrest him for?” drawled Lyle.
     Max hesitated. He didn’t know. But he was a teacher. Teachers know. “Oh, some drug thing. But anyhow, I grabbed my chance to tell old Windbag about my car.”
     Lowering his newspaper, Sitwell smiled a crooked smile full of crooked, tawny teeth. “Your car?” he said.
     “Read your union newsletter, bro,” ordered Max. “Last month, a teacher at Southpark Junior High got his tires slit, and a teacher at Central got his spray-painted with the filthiest goddamn crap you ever saw.”
     “What happened to your car, Max?”
     “That’s what that S.O.B. Windmuller kept asking. Do we have to wait for something to happen before we act? That’s management’s position, for Chrissake!”
     “It’s chocolate,” Clara reminded him, licking her fingertips.
     Lyle got off the couch and stood behind me, as I graded papers.
     “I see you’ve got Appaloosy,”
     “That nut,” sputtered Max. “Rocks in her seat. Whinnies? Thinks she’s a horse. Listen, when I was a kid, you had your head screwed on or you got your ass kicked. Look at the SAT scores. That proves it.”
     Pris said her professors said that the SATs were designed for a different era. “Kids today are smart in ways those tests don’t measure.”
     I stacked my vocabulary tests and stood up. I wanted out of there.