After spending twenty minutes analyzing James Joyce’s confounding use of the English language and its overall literary purpose, I held my throbbing head in my hands. What does it all mean? Why doesn’t he connect his ideas and anecdotes with transitions? What is a “moocow”? As my muddled peers and I struggled to find meaning in Joyce’s work, we looked to our teacher in pleading desperation.
“What he mean by all of this?” I asked bewildered, gesturing to the pages of my open book.
“Actually, I was hoping you could tell me,” she said in a voice that instilled panic and fear in the hearts of students.
At her ominous words, I felt my pulse begin to quicken. No, no, no. She can’t be doing this. It’s a Friday. There was no way we were about to do a-
“Timed writing assignment,” my teacher beamed as she said the vile words.
A collective gasp issued from the class. Those of us brave enough to question the system immediately objected.
“But we haven’t had enough time. We hardly understand what Joyce is saying. How could we write an essay-”
“You have forty minutes starting….now,” she hit the timer button on her phone, effectively silencing all cries of protest.
I stared at the prompt she had just passed in front of me.
“How do Joyce’s use of rhetorical strategies, such as metaphor, point of view, syntax, and imagery, contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole?”
“How am I suppose to know what Joyce was going for?” I muttered under my breath.
In spite of my initial reluctance, I managed to organize my chaotic thoughts into a fairly cohesive essay. As always, I was writing until the very last minute, struggling to add a strong concluding sentence with only fifteen seconds left.
With just seconds to spare, I finished the essay and slammed the pencil on my desk with resounding finality. I had done it. Although the veritable quality of my writing and ideas had been questionable, I had something to show for my efforts. I held the loose-leaf paper that I had furiously scribbled on with the utmost reverence.
At the sudden beeping of the timer, several students lost in their essays jumped in their chairs.
“Time’s up,” my teacher resolutely called.
Eager to forget whatever drivel we had just written, we quickly passed our papers to the front, muttering amongst ourselves about how difficult the prompt had been.
Having amassed the fruits of our labor in a plastic bin, our teacher briefly turned to look at the clock before saying, “Class is almost over. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Anxious about the essay she’d just written, a girl in the front asked, “When will you have them graded?”
I cringed. Teachers despised being asked that question. What was she thinking?
As I had expected, our teacher grimaced a little before answering, “I was actually planning on starting now.”
Although she was still smiling, her voice had taken a cool, steely tone, one that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Her eyes still fixed on the student, our teacher drew a small match from the inside of her purse.
She grinned at all of us, showing off her perfect teeth.
“This should be an enlightening experience for all of us,” she said with an unsettling laugh.
With a flick of her wrist, she struck the match and produced a brilliant flame. After admiring it for several moments, she quickly tossed it into the pile of essays we had so arduously written.
We watched in horror as the brilliant white sheets of lined paper quickly blackened in the flames.
“How about this? Whichever one burns the brightest gets an A!” she asked us frenziedly, her head turned at an unnatural angle.
I was at a loss for words. Someone had to do something. Call the police. Put out the fire. Get a psychiatrist. Something. Our teacher had just gone berserk. But I was so shocked at what happened that I found it hard to move.
“What’s the matter, Anusha? Something wrong?” my teacher asked in a derisive, patronizing tone. Once smooth, beautiful, and kindly, our teacher’s face contorted into something grotesque and ghoulish. Her eyes glowed an unnatural yellow, becoming two venomous orbs that demanded. A forked tongue darted in and out of her mouth.
Unable to withstand the intensifying heat, fear, anxiety, and abject terror I was experiencing, I awoke with a start. Wiping the cool perspiration from my forehead, I breathed a sigh of mingled shock and relief.
I knew writing essays had been difficult before, but I’d never known it could be deadly.