Every morning the new chemistry teacher, Professor Lorraly, walked into the classroom filled with students waiting for him to arrive. With the exception of the periodic table of elements, the classroom walls were bare, yet he filled the room with learning and wonder and curiosity to the extent it was no surprise when after the bell had rung, he was still not in class. He was a mystery to them, and his students knew on such days something interesting was about to happen.
A week earlier he had emerged from behind the science hallway door like a magician in mid-act, wearing goggles with tinted blue lenses and rubber gloves up to his elbows. With two hands, he held a beaker emitting a great plume of pale smoke.
“Out of the way!” he shouted, kicking backpacks and pretending to trip. “Out of the way!”
He did not take the shortest route from the science hallway to the long black desk at the front of the classroom either. Instead he maneuvered along the length of the classroom dodging and stepping on backpacks strewn across the floor like dirty laundry. As quickly as the smoke appeared, it dissipated and faded against the ceiling tile. This was Professor Lorally’s introduction to kinetic theory and phase changes.
“Can somebody tell me what has just happened?”
Professor Lorraly was a jokester on most mornings, and he told stories, plenty of them. It was his stories that drove a desire for his students to show up to class in the first place. Students wanted to be entertained, changed in some surprising way. They demanded it. They were drunk for it. They desired the kind of entertainment the internet provided them in a thirty-second clip, even though their creators spent hours piecing the clips together.
On the outside, Lorraly was jovial, though he sniffled as if he had a cold which was one of his peculiarities because he felt neither ill nor allergic and several allergists had confirmed it keeping the mystery alive. Lorraly came to the simple conclusions that his body must have believed he was always ill, carrying a bacteria or virus, even though he felt fine. And for the sake of allaying the curiosity of his students and moving on with the lesson, he told them his sniffles were in fact allergies.
They asked so many questions these students. They wanted to know all the answer to the world’s mysteries, and always Professor Lorraly had answers for them–most of the time. His students were like his five year old daughter who, before her journey, asked so many questions. Why was the sky blue? What are molecules? Why do people die?
She had discovered early on that most answers could then be asked simply by asking the question, why? She knew the answers would continue, knew it like tomorrow would arrive.
What? When? Why?
And it was never enough to tell her, Because I said so, since there was always an answer to why one chose to say so in the first place. Especially when he said it angrily right before a car swerved in front of the car trying to make a left turn from the right lane.
And when he didn’t have an answer to a question, he launched into a story about his daughter–something usually about a conversation they had shared that morning.
“This morning,” Professor Lorraly commenced, citing the eventual moment of lull in his audience that told him they were ready to listen. “…my daughter handed me a bag of candy,” Professor Lorally said, pushing the wire-framed glasses up the bridge of his nose. By saying the phrase, a bag of candy, he had released in his students a flood of giddiness sending them back into conversation with one another.
“What kind of candy?” crowed Jose from the corner of the room.
“Skittles. I saw the bag.” shouted Gina.
“I like the purple ones,” confessed Samantha nearby.
He expected a disruption, knew it was beyond his control, and waited for the cyclic rhythm of learning to begin again. He looked down at his lesson notes. He waited until a few students grew impatient with the interruption and hushed their classmates. He continued.
“She said, Dad, I want you to give this bag of candy to your students.”
“Candy, I said. But candy is bad for you.”
“It doesn’t matter, she told me. Kids need candy.”
At the sound of this, a few students perked up, sat up in their chairs like sea lions awaiting a tender morsel of mackerel.
“Green one, please.” Maribella blurted exasperatingly from the front row, unable to maintain the quietude.
“Why do they need candy?” I asked her.
“Because on most days, you’re boring, and candy wakes them up.”
The students laughed. Some agreed. Others slouched back in their chairs wondering why Mr. Lorally would tell a story that was clearly embarrassing.
“But she said, kids want to change the world and make it a better place.”
“You think so.”
“I do,” she said. “And candy helps them see a better world, it helps them think, and it makes them feel like the world is a good place. But it’s in the candy.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yes, she said. She is always so sure of herself. But she didn’t stop there. And people need candy, because in candy there is hope.’”
Some of his students mouthed the word, hope, anticipating the quench of sugar.
“Yes, hope, she said.”
“But candy is artificial, I said. Living life is a real experience, that’s all there is–experiences. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s bad. Have you ever had an Almond Joy? Yuck!”
“Does it taste like black liquorice?”
All the students agreed that black liquorice was bad. Some had never really tasted black liquorice before but agreed anyways. Others promised they would bring them a piece tomorrow. “It tastes like death,” said Sabrina at the front of the class.
“Now then, she said. Take this bag of Skittles,” Professor Lorally held the bag over his head as if an offering to an unknown god. “Papa,” she said, “Let them choose.”
From the back room, one student began chanting, “Let them choose. Let them choose.” And before long the entire class was chanting in unison and pounding their fists against the desks.
“Let them choose! Let them choose!”
It took twenty minutes of class time for every student to line up along the the perimeter of the classroom, each taking two Skittles before returning to their desks, chewing the soft, sweet globby remnants stuck between teeth.
Jelissa raised her hand.
“When are you going to put pictures of your family on the walls, Professor Lorraly?”
He looked around the room, considered it.
“Oh, I’ll get around to it one of these days. Let’s get on with the lesson. Today, we’re continuing our discussion on sublimation answering the essential question: What happens when a solid is changed into a gas?”
Every day he stuffed his briefcase with papers, rode the number 15 Third Street two miles to the east end of town, where the bus dropped him off in front of the billiard room and the outlines of the slender ladies dancing in flashing neon. Some days he made it home right away. Other nights he stumbled out of Brunello’s filled with an artificial optimism for the future.
Eventually, he made it home through the dense fog and up the wooden steps above Enrico’s Cafe where the jazz music often played until 1:30 in the morning. Standing at the door, using a second hand to steady his aim through the cylinder, he slid the key smoothly into the chamber and heard again the sound of metal grinding against metal.
He wished his daughter was home to provide him with enough distraction to avoid his school work, avoid it all together and ignore the facts.
“None of it happened,” he uttered. “None of it.”
Every day he returned home this way to his family in an empty apartment. Though he knew neither his wife nor his daughter would be home this day, he entered his home feeling their spirit fill the small downtown apartment, though big enough to keep a shrine lit with candles and pictures.
The apartment was empty. It was small, but it was enough for them. They had been there. And a taste came to his mouth. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it felt heavy on his tongue, tangy and bitter.
He thought of his students, thought about the way they came together like a phalanx and rose up at the sound of the word candy. He imagined how with
a bit of sweetness, an appeal to an addictive agent, an appeal to hunger, a drive, something greater than themselves, his students would all rise up in unison and change the world forever.
He always knew it. He always knew his daughter would make a difference.