"Dr. Deneau's Punishment"
An Excerpt from a Story in The Bigness of the World
Originally published in The Georgia Review.
This story, like most of my stories, came about because of a confluence of events: my brother and his wife came to visit, and since they too are teachers, we spent much of the visit bemoaning the state of education but also laughing about any number of things, including the fact that when my brother and I were children, the lowest reading group at our elementary school was called the Donkeys. (I don't think that we thought much about it, though perhaps "the Donkeys" did.)
Around the same time, one of my Brazilian students, a pilot, received word that his friend back home, a fellow pilot, had been blinded when a bird flew into his windshield and shattered it. I had started working on the story by then and one day decided, for the sake of procrastination, to see how many proverbs about ants I could find. I was enjoying Dr. Deneau's voice and found that he and I shared many pet peeves, including, it turned out, that we both find proverbs irritating, and so the ant proverbs entered the story.
Dr. Dunno. That is what the boys call me, what they write on desks and in bathroom stalls, a play on my name—which is Deneau—and on the fact that, day after day, that is how they respond to my questions. "Dunno," they say with an elaborate shrug and the limp, unarticulated drawl that has become ubiquitous among teenagers in a classroom setting; they cannot even be bothered to claim their ignorance in the form of a complete sentence, to say, "I don't know," a less than desirable response to be sure, but one that does not smack of apathy and laziness and disdain.
They arrive each day with matted hair and soiled faces, a lifetime of wax and dirt spilling from their ears. "Ear rice," the Koreans call it, referring, no doubt, to the tiny balls that a normal person, one who attends to his ears on a regular basis, is likely to produce—not to the prodigious amounts produced by thirteen-year-old boys oblivious to hygiene. However, I cannot sit beside them each morning as they prepare for school, coaxing them to apply just a bit more soap, to consider a cleaner shirt. No. My realm is the classroom, my only concern that when they leave it, they possess at least a modicum of proficiency in that much-maligned subject to which I have devoted my life: mathematics.