Our kids are not the only ones abused by a cruel and unthinking system.
by Simon Rich, The New Yorker
They buried my wife in a shoebox in Central Park. I like to imagine that the service was respectful, that her body was treated with a modicum of dignity. But of course I’ll never know. I wasn’t invited to her funeral. Instead, the guests of honor were the students of homeroom 2K.
When the children returned from the burial, they drew “tributes” to my wife in magic marker—maudlin scribbles of halos, wings, and harps. It was hard not to vomit as Ms. Hudson taped them up above my cage. I’ve never seen such tasteless dreck in all my life.
Hailey, I noticed, was crying as she drew. The irony. It was her responsibility to refill our water bottle last week. Instead, she spent all her free time with Alyssa, practicing a clapping game called “Miss Mary Mack.”
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack!
All dressed in black, black, black!
It was that inane chant that provided the score to my wife’s final moments. She was dying of thirst, but never cried once. It was only later that I realized why: her body was too dehydrated to produce tears.
Pocahontas was her name.
My name is Princess Jasmine. I am a male, so this name is humiliating, but I’m aware that my situation could be worse. The other homeroom, 2R, has a guinea pig named Homer Simpson and an elderly turtle named New Kids on the Block.
Pocahontas left me with three sons, and it’s for their sake alone that I keep up my struggle. Every weekday morning, when the monsters run screaming through the door, I hide my babies under scraps of newspaper. Whenever food and water are scarce, I give them my whole portion. Their faces are an exact copy of my wife’s, and when I look at them, it helps me remember just how beautiful she was. Their names are Big Mac, Whopper, and Mr. T.
Mr. T was born with developmental problems. He was so small during infancy that we had to shelter him each night, wrapping our bodies around his shivering frame so that he could fall asleep. I’ve been through so much. If I lose Mr. T, I’m not sure I’ll have the strength to carry on.
It’s morning now. The square of sunlight on the blackboard grows and grows. Soon the gremlins will run in howling, hopped up on Pop-Tarts and primed for violence. For months, I assumed that this school was reserved for children with “special needs.” Sociopaths and the mentally deranged. But during parent-teacher night, the mink coats and charcoal suits told a different tale. It turns out this school is a private one, an “élite” institution for the children of millionaires.
I can hear the nannies muscling their way through the lobby, dragging their little terrors toward my family. My sons are still asleep. I lick their faces and conceal them the best I can.
The bell clangs harshly. The nightmare has begun.
Monday, 8:25 A.M.
“What time is it?”
My fur bristles as Ms. Hudson takes out the Jobs Board. This laminated poster, with its seventeen colorful squares, rules my family’s existence. It determines everything: whether we feast or starve, live or die. I rub my paws impatiently while Ms. Hudson assigns the week’s tasks.
“Pencil organizer this week is… Dylan! Line leader is… Max! And our two table wipers are… Kristen and Sophie!”
Eventually, she gets to the one job that matters.
“Hamster feeder is…”
I scan the room. There are still some good candidates left. Maybe we’ll get lucky and end up with Caitlin? Last time she gave us double portions. If we get her this week, Mr. T can gain some weight in time for winter. It’s while I’m enjoying this fantasy that Ms. Hudson clears her throat and—with one little word—sentences my family to death.
My eyes widen with horror. Simon Rich is 2K’s “class clown,” a pudgy, hyperactive boy with some kind of undiagnosed emotional problem.
“Hamster feeder?” he shouts. “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout Willis!”
The other children laugh hysterically.
My God, I think. This is it. This is how it ends.
“Free time’s almost over,” Ms. Hudson says. “Don’t forget to do your jobs!”
I sigh with relief as Simon finally walks over to our cage. He doesn’t feed us, though, or replenish our water. Instead, he picks me up by my tail, which is connected directly to my spine. The pain is so searing, it shocks me into a kind of perverse laughter. I did not know my body could hurt this way—that God would allow one of his own creatures to suffer on this level. He swings me through the air, while singing nonsensically in his high-pitched nasal voice.
“Gotta go to Mo’s, gotta go to Mo’s yeah…”
I glance at my babies, hidden safely under newspaper. Even at the height of my agony, I am grateful that Simon has focused his sadism on me. Otherwise, it might be one of them who suffered.
Free time ends and Simon drops me back into my cage, from several times my own height. My sons poke their heads through the newspaper. They look around confusedly, then stare at me in dismay. They’re used to receiving food at this hour, but I have none to give. Simon has forgotten to do his one basic task. There is still some water left in our bottle from last week, but all it can do is prolong our agony. Without grain, we won’t live long.
Our long, slow death march has started.
During science class, Ms. Hudson unveils a large, glossy map of the solar system.
“There are nine planets in the solar system,” she says. “Which one do we live on?”
“Mars!” Simon shouts. The other children howl uproariously. This is what passes for wit among them, the basic substitution of one word for another.
“Very funny,” Ms. Hudson says, smiling indulgently. “But of course, we really live on Earth, the third planet from the sun. Mars is the fourth planet. And after that one comes Jupiter, Saturn…”
I sigh with misery. It’s obvious what’s about to happen.
There is a split-second pause and then the class erupts into full-fledged chaos. I try to shield my sons from the noise, but it’s too late. The monsters have heard a “dirty”-sounding word and cannot contain their excitement.
“Uranus!” Simon screams. “Uranus!”
I glare at the teacher, silently willing her to beat him. But all she does is walk across the classroom and turn off the fluorescent lights. Her ploy does nothing. The children’s shrieking laughter is so deafening I can feel my eardrums throbbing in my skull. Some of the students are standing on their desks, swinging their arms around in a kind of mania.
The chaos gradually subsides, but only because the children grow exhausted. The utterance of the word “anus” has produced in them pure ecstasy. Several are crying real tears.
Ms. Hudson turns the lights back on and I glance at the clock. The Uranus hysteria has lasted thirteen minutes. Before the lesson can resume, the bell rings. The students run laughing through the door, another day of inanity behind them.
I watch as my children drink our last remaining drops of water. We’ll be lucky to make it through the night.
Tuesday, 8:15 A.M.
I awake to the sound of screeching laughter. Sophie and Alyssa have made a dress out of pink construction paper and taped it to my sleeping body.
“You’re a pretty girl, Princess Jasmine!” Alyssa says. “A pretty, pretty girl!”
I try to remove the costume, but the tape is double-sided and my paws are too weak to detach it. I must wear this “dress” indefinitely, in the presence of my own sons. I avoid their eyes, and they avoid mine. Whatever dignity I had is long gone.
During attendance, everyone says “here” except for Simon, who says “not here.” Somehow this gets a laugh. For the first time in my life, I think seriously about the option of suicide.
Ms. Hudson starts the day with a geography lesson. She spends ten minutes explaining the concepts of north, south, east, and west. Then she asks the class which country is “north” of the United States. The children stare up at her, completely baffled. Eventually, Jeffrey raises his hand. “Mexico?” he whispers. The teacher smiles at him encouragingly. “Almost!” she says. I watch in stunned silence as she hands the little moron a sticker, as a reward for “trying his best.”
“What do we say?” Ms. Hudson asks her other students. “When someone tries their very best?”
The children smile and break into a chant.
“That’s all right, that’s O.K., we still love you anyway!”
I vomit bile onto my own legs. I’ve heard a lot of treacle in this classroom, but this new cheer is so cloying it nearly pushes me over the edge.
The children continue to chant, their voices growing louder and more confident. It’s no wonder they’re such monsters, I think. They’ve been taught that they’re infallible, as perfect and blameless as gods.
You forgot to feed the hamsters? That’s all right, that’s O.K.
You sprayed a thirsty hamster with water from his own bottle, as he was trying to drink from it, the ultimate degradation? We still love you anyway.
I can feel myself on the verge of becoming insane.
During snack time, Simon and three other obese boys have a milk-drinking contest. It’s not easy to watch as they gorge themselves just inches from my starving family’s faces.
Mr. T has begun eating newspaper to dull the pain in his stomach. My other sons sleep all day to conserve energy. For the first two days of our ordeal, I fantasized constantly about food. I hallucinated mounds of grain, piles of nuts, and luscious chunks of apple. Lately, though, I’ve stopped feeling hungry at all. It’s as if my body has given up and braced itself for death.
Teddy wins the contest by drinking seven milks. He immediately throws up.
Ms. Hudson sends him to the nurse and calls for Carlos, the janitor. He arrives within seconds, holding a tattered mop.
“Hola!” the children shout in unison.
Carlos is a native English speaker, but the little racists assume that he is foreign-born.
“Hola,” Carlos says.
“I need you to take care of something,” Ms. Hudson tells him, gesturing at the pile of brown puke.
Carlos nods and gets to work. He’s still scrubbing twenty minutes later, when the final school bell rings.
“Adiós!” the children shout as they run by him. “Adiós!”
“Adiós,” he says, his eyes on his work.
Ms. Hudson peeks over his shoulder, her skinny arms folded at her chest.
“Are you going to disinfect the area?” she asks. Carlos forces a smile. He has already begun to disinfect the area, but does not want to contradict her.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says.
“I don’t want that smell hanging around.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
When the children are all gone, she puts on some lipstick and changes into a pair of high heels.
“My dad’s making me see opera,” she complains.
Carlos nods awkwardly, unsure of how to respond.
“Don’t forget to disinfect the area,” she repeats, on her way out.
Carlos finishes mopping and then walks from table to table, cleaning up after the fat beasts. The Jobs Board is a total farce, I think, as he sponges up their filth. Kristen and Sophie are table wipers in name only. At the end of the day, every job on the board belongs to Carlos. The only exception is line leader, which of course is a privilege that he will never get to enjoy.
When Carlos sees us, he curses under his breath. I avert my eyes with shame. Our cage is full of feces. I know we’re not responsible for the condition of our prison, but it’s hard not to feel mortified.
I look on with pity as the janitor collects our soiled newspaper. He has several tattoos on his forearm, I notice, a few cursive names and a large, ornate crucifix. I, too, am a Christian. Although lately I’ve struggled to make sense of God’s plan. I wonder if Carlos’s faith is as battered as mine.
He refills our water bottle, and, for the first time in days, I allow myself to feel hope. Before he can find our feedbag, though, Principal Davenport has run into the room.
“Carlos, there you are! A kindergartener shat himself in dance. Would you please take care of it?”
Carlos forces another smile and reaches for his mop.
“Of course, sir.”
The principal gives him a thumbs-up. “Gracias!”
The water tastes so rich it brings tears to my eyes. As I drink it, I can feel it coursing through my body, giving my parched veins life. I look over at my sons, asleep in their clean cage, their wet little noses twitching with contentment. Carlos has saved our lives. But for how long?
Mercifully, the children are gone this morning. They’ve been given a break from their arduous studies to enjoy a “field day” at Randall’s Island.
The classroom is blissfully quiet until lunchtime, when the hobgoblins return. Their flabby, red faces are streaked with grime and sweat. The smell is almost unendurable. Every child, regardless of fatness, has somehow won an athletic trophy.
When he walks by my cage, I peak at the engraving on his trophy. “Participation,” it reads. I wonder if Simon is aware that his trophy has no meaning, that all he participated in was a mass delusion?
“Great job, everybody,” Ms. Hudson says. “That was some great teamwork today.”
“Whatchu talkin’ ’bout Willis!” Simon says.
Everybody laughs, including Ms. Hudson.
The children spend the afternoon playing with their trophies. Simon comes up with the ingenious gag of holding his trophy in front of his groin, in an imitation of a penis. The other boys applaud him and rush to follow his example. The girls, meanwhile, busy themselves by making “clothes” for their trophies out of construction paper. Ms. Hudson encourages this madness, passing out glue and jars of glitter.
Finally, at 3:15, the nannies come to take the creatures away.
“Don’t forget to do your jobs!” Ms. Hudson cries. Simon doesn’t even look in our direction. This makes three straight days without food. It’s official: we are going to starve to death.
I glance at my three sons. Their bodies still have breath, somehow, but I can see that something else has died inside them. Mr. T hasn’t moved in hours. And this morning I caught Whopper leering at him with a look I wish I could block out of my mind. Taboos are breaking down. If food doesn’t come soon, I know, we’ll have to make our own.
Thursday, 8:10 A.M.
As the sun rises on another hellish day, I gather my sons around me. I’ve rehearsed my speech all night, but it’s still hard to utter it. Eventually, with painful effort, I manage to force the terrible words through my lips.
“If Simon forgets to feed us one more time… I want the three of you to eat my body.”
Mr. T breaks down and weeps. But Big Mac and Whopper merely nod.
They know it’s the only solution we have left.
I can hear Simon’s voice before he even enters the classroom, as piercing and abrasive as a siren.
“Whatchu talkin’ ’bout Willis!”
His use of this catchphrase has spiked in recent days. Its effect on the other students has waned and often the quip fails to elicit any laughter at all. In response, Simon has taken to screaming the phrase at full voice, in the mad hope that volume might somehow restore the gag’s appeal.
“Whatchu talkin’ ’bout! Whatchu talkin’ ’bout! Whatchu talkin’ ’bout!”
He presses his face against the bars of our cage and chants the phrase, again and again, until the words bleed together and begin to lose their meaning. His noxious Dorito breath engulfs me and I can feel the fury mounting in my chest. I think of the sound of my son weeping and the look my wife gave me as she drew her final breath.
I have only a little strength left. But it’s enough to rise up and sink my teeth into the monster’s flesh.
“Words can’t express how sorry I am! Safety is our top priority—I’m as appalled as you are that something like this could occur at our school.”
“He had to get three stitches! The plastic surgeons say that the scar could be visible for months!”
I roll my eyes as Simon’s mother starts to cry.
“He’s just a little boy,” she says. “And you let him be exposed to wild animals!”
I glance at my sons. They’re still alive, but their breathing is shallow and erratic. Our cage has been moved to the principal’s office, but they don’t seem aware of the change in our surroundings. They’re barely conscious. I can see their hearts fluttering in their rib cages, trying to eke out a few extra hours of survival.
“I’m considering pressing charges,” Simon’s mother prattles on. “My lawyer says I have a real case. Simon had to take a rabies test, and when the nurse pricked his thumb, he cried and cried. The doctor said he’d never seen a boy cry like that.”
I smile proudly, thinking of this scene.
“He’s going to need therapy,” the woman continues. “Lots of it.”
“Is there anything I can do?” asks the tired principal. “To help regain your family’s trust?”
Simon’s mother turns toward our cage, her eyes narrowing with rage.
“I want those animals out of the classroom.”
Principal Davenport nods.
“We’ll move them to homeroom 2R.”
“That’s not enough,” she says, her voice lowering. “I want them destroyed.”
Principal Davenport clears his throat.
“Of course,” he says.
He picks up a phone and calls for a janitor. Carlos arrives within seconds, mop in hand.
“Hola!” the principal says. “Listen. I… uh… need you to take care of something.”
I can smell the Dumpster before I see it, an overflowing bin of putrid trash. My nose twitches painfully as I process all the stenches: decomposing Dunkaroos and mold-encrusted Pop-Tarts; rancid, soggy Lunchables and spoiled Nesquik. The monsters have accumulated so much waste this week, and now we’re to be added to the pile.
“Sorry, little guys,” Carlos whispers.
He scans the alley to make sure no children are watching. Then he pulls a hammer from his tool belt. I lick my children’s faces one last time. I know my act of rebellion has hastened their deaths. But my guilt is assuaged by the knowledge that their suffering will soon be at an end.
Carlos holds the hammer over Mr. T’s tiny skull. My son looks up, his eyes half-lidded. I pray that he doesn’t grasp the situation, that his final moments aren’t consumed by fear.
“Sorry, little guys,” Carlos says, again. “Sorry.”
He raises the hammer high and his sleeve slides down his forearm, exposing his tattoo. He stares at the three cursive names. Then he puts away his weapon, grabs our cage, and runs.
I awake to the sight of three girl humans, gobbling pancakes and chatting rapidly.
“Snap, Crackle, and Pop!”
“The mommy should be Mrs. Fluffy, or Mrs. Furry, or…”
“It’s not a mommy,” Carlos interrupts. “It’s a daddy.”
He pours some Cheerios into our cage.
“And we’re going to call him Hercules.”
The girls all laugh.
Carlos crouches down and looks into my eyes.
“Because he’s tough. And strong. And he works long hours, even though it’s a living nightmare.”
His daughters look at each other nervously.
“O.K.,” whispers the oldest. “We’ll call him Hercules.”
Carlos clears his throat and wipes his eyes roughly with his sleeve.
“O.K., good,” he says. “Thanks. Now finish your breakfasts, I mean it.”
Simon Rich is a screenwriter and novelist. His newest book is a collection of love stories called The Last Girlfriend on Earth.
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