Mr. B snuck in below the average age of our teachers by a decade or so. He shrugged off the concept of a suit and tie for short sleeves, jeans and sneakers. He didn’t smell of cigarettes, but some other strange smoky fragrance that I was still unfamiliar with at the time. The small circular glasses on the bridge of his nose reminded me of the eyewear that one of the Beatles wore in a poster on the wall at our neighborhood’s Licorice Pizza.
“Take one and pass these back guys.” Mr. B handed out copies of a
thin, plainly covered book to the front row. “Today we’re going to read one of the most influential short stories of the last hundred years. Anybody ever hear of Shirley Jackson?”
“Michael Jackson’s mom?”
“She wrote Frankenstein right?”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Very funny guys” Assuming his typical pose, Mr. B sat on the corner of his desk and opened the book. “Who wants to start? We’re going to trade pages today.” Nobody else volunteered, so I raised my hand. He looked around the room, not appearing surprised by the lack of enthusiasm in this group of fourteen and fifteen year olds. His gaze finally landing on me, he nodded in my direction.
“’The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson.” I read the title page first and then went on through the next two or three before Mr. B interrupted me, calling another student’s name to continue the story. I was mesmerized, transported into a suffocating world of fear and complacency. I didn’t see words on the page anymore. There were no pages. The classroom disappeared leaving me in the midst of that panicked, sweaty crowd of villagers praying like them, that I wouldn’t be the one chosen.
Near the end of class we reached the climax. Ms. Hutchinson pleading the unfairness of the drawing and the dot on her slip of paper shouldn’t count as the stones begin bombarding her in the head. After the reading of the final word, a thick questioning silence floated around the room. Could an event such as this really happen? Do they happen in the world now? I asked myself these and worried about the state of the world for the first time in my young life.
A loud bang on the door and everyone in the classroom jumped in our seats. Mr. B stuck his head out, his words muffled by the thick wood echoed unintelligibly through the hall. “I’ll be right back guys. Why don’t you discuss the story and how it made you feel?” He stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
“That story is crazy.”
“So fucked up man.”
“It could never happen.”
“What about the holocaust?”
“So fucked up man.”
“Yeah man. And Communism.”
“And how everybody likes Milli Vanilli.”
“You know, group organisms.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s like a flock of birds or a school of fish. They all travel the same way together so they don’t disrupt the flow.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Do you want everybody else to think you’re cool?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s because you want everybody to like you.”
“Well, that’s going with the flow. Not disturbing the herd.”
“What does that have to do with the story?”
“The villagers go along with it because they don’t want to disrupt the flow no matter what else happens.”
“Even if they have to kill people?”
“That’s fucked up man.”
“Tel me about it.”
“Hey, I’ve got a great idea…”
Every one of us ripped a sheet of paper from our notebooks and crumpled them up into balls. I put one extra sheet on my desk, drew a big black dot on it and folded it neatly. J took the paper from me and stood by the door, waiting. Sitting straight backed with our hands folded on top of the paper balls on our desks, we fought back laughter as best we could. Mr. B opened the door and J handed him the paper. J shouted “Now!” as Mr. B comprehended the solid black symbol in his hands. Diving through the air to get behind his desk, he flew through our barrage of paper stones. Picking the nearest stones on the floor, he threw them back at us hitting L between the eyes.
There was no possible way the rest of campus didn’t hear our screams and howls of laughter for the final remaining minutes of class. The paper war went on until Mr. B ultimately surrendered, hair frazzled and out of breath. He didn’t give us homework that night, but I read the story again anyway. The next day in class he asked if anyone else read it again. With no hesitation, we all raised our hands.
Unfortunately I can’t remember that teacher's name. But more importantly, I remember what he taught me. He inspired me to read beyond the syllabus. To find authors and stories that inspired me. He pushed me to write poetry and study grail mythology. When I brought in a report on “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White, he checked out a VCR from the office and showed us Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He made reading accessible to us, the first generation of cable and video game kids.
Other than my music classes, that particular memory of “The Lottery” is one of the things I look back on most fondly from school. To this day I read the story from time to time and think of that class. Now I watch my kids reading their school books and can only hope they find someone to encourage them to seek out their own inspiration and imagination too.