School of Awkward by Kihin Ranno

Ms. Rabbers took yet another long drag of her lemon chamomile tea, cupping her ‘carpe diem’ mug close to her face, hoping the heat would ease away the migraine which had persisted since the night before. The other teachers in the lounge looked on in sympathy, unsure of the exact particulars of the situation, but all too familiar with that look. Anxiety, dread, fear, depression, hopelessness. Ms. Rabbers knew she looked like she was about to go shovel the sidewalk in a blizzard, and worse still, that her job depended on it.

The five minute warning bell rang, and she slopped a bit of hot tea on her exposed knee. She took a beat before exclaiming, “Gosh darn it!” and leaping up, frantically reaching out for a napkin to blot away the fire. Before she could find one, a handkerchief was floating before her face. She took it and then looked up. Her cheeks flushed. “Thank you, Father Don.”

The short little man some of the students affectionately called “the pudgy priest” smiled brightly, eyes twinkling underneath the fluorescent lighting. “Don’t mention it. Just be sure to have fun in class today.” He gave a jolly little wave and then trundled off to his first theology class – Death and Dying.

Ms. Rabbers laughed a little too loudly, pointing after the priest even though his back was already to her. After he’d left the room, it tapered off into a chuckle that she couldn’t help but think must have resembled how mad men sounded before they were led off to the gallows. She could see a few other teachers starting forward to offer up support, but while she would have appreciated it, there wasn’t enough time to gather all she needed. Instead, she picked up all of her books and papers, took a deep breath, and ventured out into the freshman hallway that stood between her and her classroom.

She didn’t know what it was about the freshman, but she swore they didn’t shower. This end of the school always smelled like body odor, and she was fairly sure if uncertainty could have an odor, it could be found around here. Not for the first time, she envied the science teachers for their placement next to the Senior Hallways. Seniors, whose English classes she taught, were very hygiene conscious.

“Good morning, Ms. Rabbers,” a few of the more lively students called out. The others who had dragged themselves into their desks would probably need to be woken up. Her class may have been a favorite of many students (a fact she knew and thought of proudly although never bragged aloud), but 8AM was 8AM. After waving back to them, she scanned the room and found the source of her trepidation was not there.

Her heart began to rise and she felt a bit giddy with hope. Maybe the girl wouldn’t come. Maybe she had somehow anticipated the oncoming uneasiness of this class period and decided to skip. Or maybe she’d come down with something – nothing serious, God forbid – but just something that would lay her up for a today. Maybe a few days. Maybe just until they were done with Shakespeare and all talk of—

“Good morning, Ms. Rabbers!”

Hopes dashed, Ms. Rabbers had to fight from slumping against her podium. Best not to look defeated next to a symbol of authority. “Good morning, Wilhelmina.”

“Really looking forward to more Hamlet today!” she chirped, which seemed utterly impossible given how pronounced her Southern drawl was. Most of the faculty was sure she exaggerated considerable. Ms. Rabbers was on of the view who knew Wilhelmina was actually from Canada.

“Oh… goody,” Ms. Rabbers said, doing her best to sound enthused. Judging by the fact that one of the sleeping students raised his head and arched an eyebrow at her in confusion, she apparently hadn’t done such a great job.

The final bell rang, and Ms. Rabbers led Morning Prayer (which took forever thanks to the amount of intentions everyone had – including one for Bridget’s ferret, something she wanted to ask about but didn’t) and then took attendance. After handing out some homework assignments and quizzes, as well as giving the students some time to ask questions (which they did not use in spite of the fact that over half had done quite poorly in comparison to their usual work), it was time to get back to that unit’s main focus. Hamlet. The cause of her incredible discomfort.

She glanced at the clock. Thirty-five minutes to go. Thank God it wasn’t a block day.

“All right, well then,” Ms. Rabbers said. “Time to get back to the most famous adolescent whiner in the history of literature.”

Some polite laughter, but nowhere near what she was used to. She was off her game. This was going to be bad.

Ms. Rabbers talked for awhile about every subject but the one. She ranted about Polonius’s ineptitude, Ophelia’s passivity, the stupidity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – allowing for the yearly segue by the resident theater geek who had seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and then the surprise segue by the resident movie geek who couldn’t wait for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead. But eventually it couldn’t be avoided any more. She had to talk about it and hope that it didn’t kill her or her career.

“All right, now as you might have noticed,” Ms. Rabbers started, a little tremor evident in her voice. “There is quite a focus on… beards in the play.”

There was a tiny gasp from the cheerleaders at the back and some rumblings from the congregation of boys in the third row. The theater and movie geek exchanged a knowing glance and the leveled it directly at the back of Wilhelmina’s head. Eventually, the fidgeting stilled and everyone else followed their example, waiting for a reaction.

Wilhelmina was still grinning from ear to ear.

“Now, the reason for this was that the beard, in Shakespeare’s time, was a very potent symbol for masculinity.”

Bridget let out a loud squeak. Ms. Rabbers wondered if she’d eaten the ferret and that’s why it needed to be prayed for.

“So, when a character says something about plucking someone’s beard, essentially what they are trying to do is emasculate them.”

Dead silence. No one was going to say anything. There was no awkward giggling, no quiet guffawing, no frantic whispering as to how all of this was making poor Wilhelmina feel. Poor, pretty Wilhelmina, a girl who would have been quite a catch and probably quite popular if it weren’t for the fact that she was the Bearded Cheerleader in her parents’ carnival.

Ms. Rabbers hadn’t wanted to go there, but there were cultural things these students needed to understand about Shakespeare for later in life. She could already predict which students would go in with theater or photography majors, and she could also predict that most of them would switch to English. She could also tell which would start out wanting to be an English teacher, even though they would likely switch to Business by the time they graduated. She had a knack for these things. But either way, all of them would need to know how much masculinity was prized in Shakespeare’s time and how much of it was exemplified with the beard. They had to know it, and she couldn’t just skip it. So Bearded Cheerleader or no, it had to be done.

And of course the head of the English department had expressly told her not to take it out of the curriculum, so platitudes aside, she really had no choice in the matter.

Wilhelmina raised her hand, and there was practically an audible gasp from the rest of the class.

“Yes, Wilhelmina?” Ms. Rabbers asked, wondering why she had never noticed how much it hurt when her voice jumped up to that octave.

“I was just wondering…” Wilhelmina began, tapping her pencil against her chin. Well, it didn’t really get anywhere near her chin, and once it got ensnared in the facial hair. “What would happen if someone plucked off my beard?”

Ms. Rabbers was going to die. Right there. Right on the spot in front of thirty-five mostly intelligent Honors students. It would be quite the headline in the school newspaper. “English Teacher Dies of Extreme Embarrassment – Was the Bearded Cheerleader Indirectly Implicit in Her Untimely Demise?” Well, hopefully it would be better than that, but she was panicking; it was all she could come up with.

“I’m sorry?” Ms. Rabbers asked, unsure of if she was apologizing or not.

“What would happen then?” Wilhelmina repeated. “I mean, it’s sort of hard to be emasculated if you don’t have a penis, right?”

It wasn’t that funny. It probably wasn’t funny at all, but it didn’t change the fact that the entire class burst into uncontrollable laughter for the last five minutes of class. By the time the bell rang, Ms. Rabbers was crying and waving them out of the classroom, tears streaming down her face. She was so thrilled that no one had had a nervous breakdown that she didn’t even bother to give them the homework assignment. Maybe they all deserved a break.

“See you later, Ms. Rabbers!” Wilhelmina called out as she practically skipped out of the classroom.

“Bye-bye,” Ms. Rabbers laughed, snorting a little.

Well, it definitely could have been worse.

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