March 30, 2020: “We Show What We Have Learned” by Clare Beams

I hope you’re having a good Monday, Story366.

Today, I started teaching again, which means, in our new world, contacting my students via Blackboard announcement. Today was kind of like the first day of class, the day I just pass out and read the syllabus, not doing anything substantive, easing us into things. Today’s version was me telling them how the class will be different in the wake of the pandemic. For one class, already online, I simply rearranged the syllabus. For the other, I rearranged the syllabus and discussed the merits and logistics of teaching online. So, baby steps today. Something real tomorrow.

By the way, online teaching for me kind of takes away a lot of me. If you know me, you’ll know what I’m talking about, the fact that I’m loud, gregarious, loquacious, but at the same time, laid back. Online, not so much. Electronically, for some reason, I’m more get-to-it Mike, making sure everything the students know is put into words, into announcements and documents and the occasional rehearsed video, as clearly and effectively as I can. A lot of the personality and humor are stripped away. Students who have taken my online intro fiction workshop, then took me for a later, seated class, have noted that they had no idea what I was really like after a semester online. They were completely shocked by my loudness, gregariousness, loquacivity, and laid-back nature. I’ve asked which they prefer and they’ve all said they like in-person Mike better. I mean, of course they do: Even if you hate me—and many people do—you have to admit I’m at least interesting.

My suspicion is that it’s like that for most teachers, that they’re better in person than online. I’m sure there’s that small percentage, the introverts, who shine online. Maybe they’re great on video, rehearsing a bunch, reading from a script, extemporaneous speaking not their forté. Maybe they’re what I call syllabus and handout warriors, people who rely heavily upon materials to teach, things that transfer online well, better than they do out loud, off the cuff. Or maybe they just hate people and typing on a keyboard and talking into a camera makes more sense to them—wait, I think that’s just a pejorative explanation of “introvert.”

In any case, I hope to get better at the online stuff. Partly because I want to do a good job this last six or seven weeks. But also because I think this is the future: Colleges and universities have already been forced to offer as much online content as they can manage. Once everyone sees just how much of our job can be done this way, without having to be anywhere, in any particular place, at any particular time—in buildings that require costly maintenance—we’ll be teaching more and more online, worldwide pandemic or not. I shiver at the thought, but hey, the future is here.

For today’s post, I read from Clare Beams‘ 2016 debut, We Show What We Have Learned, out from Lookout Books. I’ve been aware of Beams as a writer and a social media friend for a while, but I can’t say that I’ve ever read her work before today. So, Story366 fixes another injustice.

I really liked everything I read from Beam’s book and could have written, in detail, about any of the stories. I’m defaulting to the title story, but that’s actually the shortest piece in the book, functioning on a slightly different arc than the others. “We Show What We Have Learned” is about this class of students and their teacher, Ms. Swenson. The story’s told from a we perspective, from the entire class, though several of the individual students are named throughout, as is often the case with first-plural stories, with communal narrators.

Beams announces in the story’s first line Ms. Swenson’s fate, telling us, “Before her disintegration, we had long held an absolute and unwavering contempt for Ms. Swenson.” Here, we know what’s going to happen right away, then Beams backtracks and sets the scene, leading us to the eventual disintegration. It’s a risky trick, giving away the twist in the first sentence, but we see that a lot in contemporary fiction and it worked here, grabbing my attention.

In any case, we basically find out that the narrator of this story, this class full of youngsters, is a bunch of misbehaving shits. Ms. Swenson seems to be doing her best to teach, though maybe that’s not good enough; students question her authority, not recognizing the wall between acceptable and unforgiveable. One boy pulls down a girl’s pants—as in, like, all the way—to show everyone her pubic hair; in most classroom settings, this probably equals suspension, if not expulsion and legal action. In Ms. Swenson’s class, the boy gets away with a simple Stop it! 

While Ms. Swenson is lecturing on wigwams, illustrating the hole at the top so smoke can escape, a different boy makes a crude comment about another girl (what escapes her “hole”0, trying to rope Ms. Swenson into a dirty joke. Again, Ms. Swenson admonishes the kid. This time, something else happens: When she flicks her hair from behind her ear, Ms. Swenson tears off a piece of her ear, the lobe and earring flying over her desk, landing in front of the students. The children scream and gasp, yet Ms. Swenson treats it like a sneeze, cleaning her ear off the floor with a Kleenex and dropping it in the trash.

As the school year goes on, more and more of Ms. Swenson falls apart, disintegrates. She loses teeth, fingers, and other minor appendages, all without pain or ado, always prompted by the misbehavior from the class. The kids either don’t learn thieir lesson or don’t care about Ms. Swenson’s predicament, as they keep it up, pushing her to her limits, then beyond. I won’t go into detail about that here. Even in the end, however, Ms. Swenson hopes they’ve learned from what’s happened to her, as her demise, like everything, is done for their sakes, for their enrichment.

Is this a fable? A magically real fairy tale? I hate to make this summary sound like there’s one explanation for what’s happened to Ms. Swenson, that there’s definitive, one-to-one interpretation. It’s easy, even lazy, to say this story is drastically pro-educator, an exaggeration of just how much teachers are willing to give to their students, who, in turn, take and take and take. That’s a legit reading, but Beams is more than enough skilled to include enough vaguery so the story can be read in a variety of ways, whether it’s this obvious read, something more complex, or maybe nothing at all: Sometimes writers don’t intend anything and leave that for the readers to decide (blogger raises his hand as guilty of that kind of shit).

Earlier I mentioned that “We Show What We Have Learned” is shorter and thus has a different arc than the other stories I read. By that, I mean that Beams isn’t always up-front with the twists in her story. In the title piece, we know Ms. Swenson is going to disintegrate right away. In the longer stories, Beams keeps that kind of twist, that kind of premise, from us, revealing it later on. In “Hourglass,” for example, the true nature of this super-strict girls’ boarding school isn’t revealed until the pentultimate page. And that’s a story filled with unpredictability, as the rebellious, aloof protagonist doesn’t rebel or even remain aloof—as we think she will—but instead conforms, leaving the rebellion to someone else.

“World’s End” is about a nineteenth-century architect who takes on a strange client and his strange vision for a living community: The guy basically wants him to create the very first suburb, to turn a huge tract of farmland into rows and rows of high-end houses. The architect dives in with glee, but then a changes of plans, which happens near the end of the story, turns everything on its ear.

“Granna” at first plays like a realistic story. It centers on Teresa, whose husband has just left her, claiming she doesn’t strike him as “mother material,” that she’s too selfish to be a mom. Teresa tries to prove him wrong by taking her aged grandmother, Granna, out of the nursing home she stuck her in to spend a week with her up in Vermont, where Granna used to take Teresa as a child. Again, Beams waits until past the halfway point to reveal something peculiar and unexpected, changing the story completely.

I like everything about We Show What We Have Learned, and by the end, the only thing I could predict about these stories was that something unpredictable and wonderful was going to happen. Clare Beams infuses her tales with warmth and empathy, making us care about her characters, about their unique situations. That’s when she likes to pull the rug out, change direction, execute the strange and unforeseen. Not a bad approach, especially when it produces results like these.