At first it was just Junie. Junie Quakenboss. Kindergartener. Already on track for an Arctic Engineering/Parasitology double major with a minor in Canadian Studies and a certificate in Bakery Science. Bright girl. Not as many pluses following her A’s, but stellar grades nonetheless. It’s no surprise she was stressed. That’s something we take pride in, the knowledge that all our students are stressed. Stress is a motivator. It’s the necessary springboard for success.
Every spaceship needs a fire licking its keister, and this is a district of spaceships. No paddle boats or pump trollies or any other of that mediocre nonsense. We hold our students to the highest standards in the country: five hours of homework per night, fluency in at least seven languages by grade four, college credits starting in middle school. Even the bathroom breaks count toward their GPAs (on the honors level, of course). And the students—they thrive under the pressure. My Anora’s in preschool, and I’ll tell you, seeing her little tears of frustration after a long day of schooling makes my heart swell. It’s really, really something remarkable.
Of course, stress shouldn’t hold the reins. That’s when it becomes a bad thing. Grades slip. Students grow shallow-breathed and paralyzed. Makes recess a real downer. Plus panic attacks are loud, exhausting things…you can only handle so many a semester. So as superintendent I’ve put a lot of effort into curbing the negative influence of stress.
There’s pre-naptime Pilates at the elementary school and a post-lunch massage train for the high schoolers. For energy, we’ve added protein bars and energy drinks to the vending machines, and caffeine pills can be obtained in the nurse’s office if necessary, though we don’t suggest them making a habit of it. Pot brownies are now available in the cafeteria, only offered every other Monday or all week on exam weeks, of course, and last year’s therapy dog movement has proven so successful we’ve considered adding kittens as well.
My point is, we acknowledge that our kids are stressed, so when the Quakenboss girl’s teacher called last month asking if chronic nail biting was one of those things she was legally obligated to report to one of the campus shrinks, I wasn’t alarmed. We’d had weird cases before: habitual pant wetters, some stress related hair loss, that boy who wouldn’t stop licking himself during tests. Fingernail chewing isn’t dangerous. It isn’t weird.
‘Let her chew,’ I said. And everything was fine until Buffalomeat…
Gregory-Wallace Buffalomeat. A middle schooler. Ophthalmology major. Grades below above-average…I don’t know why his parents didn’t pull him out earlier. Would have saved us this tragedy. Anyway, he started chewing his fingernails too, which was expected, and when I got the call I checked out his grades and told the teacher to swap out his Gender and Sexuality course for Honors Basketball, let him focus his energy elsewhere. So we did and we gave him a weekly planner and a few Adderall and the nailbiting didn’t stop but his grades slightly improved, and once again everything was fine until number twenty two passed the ball to Buffalomeat and Buffalomeat dropped it like a limp rabbit, because he had no hand, no hand at all, just a bloody half-palm.
We were all in shock, but only temporarily. After all, his major was one of the toughies, and he was a struggler anyway, precisely the kid you’d expect to stress himself out and nibble away an extremity. So really, it was no surprise. No surprise either when the entire ophthalmology department started chewing their fingernails—and eventually their hands—or when the fourth grade class attempting to find a cure for cancer were discovered handless as well, or when I received an email from the College Acceptance and Life Stability counselor complaining that the prelaw/premed/preNavySeal students all failed to turn in their inspirational college memoirs because they no longer had arms. It was when the less challenging majors—the Humanities, English, Education types—started bleeding through the hallways that I realized the severity of the issue.
Obviously, the stress-related precautions I’d implemented had not been sufficient. I was at a loss. Demanding less of our students was simply impossible. They’re all such stupendous students, just phenomenal in their accomplishments, and the parents expect so much of them, they expect us to expect much of them…I couldn’t allow myself to do anything that would hinder their success. I considered a new schedule, one that would increase the school day by four hours, or another that would require students to work for thirty seven hours straight before receiving eight hours off—I’m a stickler for that eight-hours-a-night thing. But no other schedule seemed to work. I was playing around with the numbers when I got the call about the McSweat boy.
I’m sure you’ve all heard some version of this. Cody McSweat, a bright one, on track for an Astrophysics/Welding Major, a good student but not one of our best testers. Took him hours to answer a twenty question quiz, but once he did his work proved to be three IQ points above the genius level. Well, he came in afterschool to finish a test, and the teacher swears she only left the classroom for a moment, to go refill her coffee mug in the cafeteria, and that when she left he’d been alone, a little stressed but otherwise fine, only chewing ever so slightly at his left thumb. But when she returned—McSweat was gone.
There was an investigation. We had questions, of course. What happened to the tongue, for example, or the stomach. The teacher was fired. It was unavoidable. Kid eats himself alive, someone has to get fired...but then there were others. Five of them. All high schoolers. At first we thought they’d just ditched school. An act of rebellion, a senior prank. It was suggested that perhaps they had run away together, but none of the missing had been friends, or even in the same classes, which was peculiar. Another week and a few more vanished, then a dozen. We didn’t want to admit what we knew had happened. We held out hope for as long as we could…but they were gone.
There was another investigation, and the reason I’ve call you all here today is to discuss its results. It seems that there exists, not only in this district but in all districts of this nation, an institutional flaw. Something crucial, though, at this moment, impossible to define. But while we have no idea what this problem is, this district had made the necessary changes to combat it. For our remaining students and their remaining limbs, chain mail suits have been acquired, strong enough to survive the bite of a great white and surely strong enough to protect our students from their own stress and fangs. The schools have also been rid of all sharp objects, and special chewing rods have been designed to satisfy any nail-biting needs. With the ability to harm themselves gone, the district now feels confident in pushing forward with an even tougher curriculum. We are making classes harder, teachers tougher, days longer. Yes, the stress shall remain, but the negative expression of this stress has been denied. As for our students, my little Anora…their futures shimmer. What a joy to watch them shine.
Hannah Jane Pearson
Hannah Jane Pearson is a student at Clemson University. She has been published by Litmus and the USC Press and eats candy canes year round. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.