Miss Hartung’s desk was in the back of the room so she could keep an eye on us. In her blue or black or gray dress, she walked an aisle from back to front, then looped around the row of desks by the blackboard and came down another aisle. “A good shaking is what some of you need,” Miss Hartung said as she walked. She meant all of the fourth grade boys. She used the shoulder grab and the arm squeeze, the wrist tug and the hand clenched on the backs of our necks. She never touched a girl, but she had a grip for every sort of shake to settle boys.
Outside, during recess, Ronnie Tomlin said he would shake the shit out of everybody, and all the boys laughed. Ronnie grabbed Jack Witkowski and shook him, and even a few girls laughed. Every boy shook another boy, but nobody touched a girl, even the ones who laughed.
“Somebody will get hurt fooling like that on the playground,” Miss Hartung said after recess. She picked Ronnie Tomlin to grab by the neck. “Isn’t that right, Ronnie?” she said, shaking him. “Isn’t that right?”
She showed us, the next morning, her pictures of the asylum seats a doctor had built to shake some sense into lunatics.
Not so long ago, she told us, those chairs hung from hospital ceilings. They shook out the madness. They spun the insane for hours to lessen the blood to the brain.
Benjamin Rush, she told us. Look him up for homework; learn what else he did besides help the helpless. There’s his statue in the city. Go look. You’ll see. I’m doing my best to save all of you.
At recess, an hour later, the boys twisted the chains on the six playground swings around and around and tight and lifted their feet, spinning and screaming and thrashing like the crazy. When the girls said they wanted to try, we twisted the chains for them and they squealed as they spun.
“Smart-alecs,” Miss Hartung said, when we came back to class. “Know-it-alls,” standing so close we could feel her breath on the backs of our heads when she shook the boys one by one while we sat in our hard-backed seats screwed into the floor. “Do you feel good sense getting into those crazy brains of yours?” she said, standing beside her desk, and all of the boys, facing forward, nodded because none of us was crazy.
The next morning my mother said Angie Bechtold’s mother was on the news. “Ruby Bechtold was a funny one,” my mother said. “She had her own ways of doing things and now she’s gone and made a mess of herself.”
Angie Bechtold was absent. We listened while Miss Hartung told us we should be considerate when Angie returned. Everyone looked at Angie’s vacant desk until Mary Russo raised her hand and asked, “What’s considerate mean?”
Nobody laughed. Miss Hartung said, ”That’s when you act extra nice to somebody because a person she loves has died.”
The day Angie came back to school Ronnie Tomlin spun on the swings but didn’t yell anything. The rest of us waited for our turns to spin, even Angie. We were all considerate, everybody quiet while we spun and spun.
Gary Fincke is a poet and author of short fiction and nonfiction. He has won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2003, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Prize, a George Garrett Fiction Prize, a Lewis Prize for Nonfiction, and two Pushcart Prizes. Gary Fincke’s latest collection of stories is “The Proper Words for Sin”.