“I liked it,” Dolly said quietly. “I thought it was really sad how she didn’t get to see her baby, though… I think if she’d been allowed to see him, she would have been happier. I think she wouldn’t have—”
“That’s not the point of the story, Ms. Abbot,” Mr. Fitz said. “Anyone else?”
“I thought the protagonist’s forced isolation was a perfect mirror to our historical treatment of the mentally ill,” Janie said in a perfect monotone, not looking up from the enormous mantis she was drawing in her notebook (which was void of any notes). “Of course, as a work of early feminist literature, it’s kind of funny when you compare it with A Room of One’s Own, but—”
“They actually did that, though!” Olga Reinhardt interrupted. “When women got postpartum depressed, they locked them up and didn’t let them move around!”
“I don’t think the lady being depressed was the most important part,” Eric said, loudly enough to speak over Olga.
“In that case, what was it about?” Mr. Fitz asked, resting his hand on his desk.
“It wasn’t about feminism, either,” Eric said. “It was about how following contemporary science blindly always leads to disaster.”
I heard a loud “harrumph” from Olga’s direction. I looked over at her. She had her arms crossed and was pouting. Next to her, Janie was still expressionless and still drawing her mantis. Dolly was apparently enraptured by Eric’s theory, even though I thought he was stretching it a little.
“That’s a novel take,” Mr. Fitz said, smiling. “With that interpretation, the husband in the story was as much a victim as the wife, wasn’t he?”
“Not exactly,” Eric said quietly. “He was a doctor. He followed what his handbook told him instead of following his gut and listening to his wife, so he wound up hurting her. He still caused more damage.”
“Well, it’s not easy having a mentally ill spouse,” Mr. Fitz said. “It takes a very specific personality to live with someone who spends half their time unable to listen to reason. I can’t help but think he was struggling, too.”
“He struggled for two seconds,” said Dirk, from the back of the room. “Then he shoved her in that room as soon as she inconvenienced him!”
“Don’t interrupt, Mr. Connors,” Mr. Fitz said, shooting one of his signature glares. “I think that Mr. Andrews’ interpretation was very thoughtful.”
“Thank you, sir,” Eric said, a little smugly.
The rest of the class discussion was pretty boring. Olga kept on trying to throw in obscure details, and Janie was totally silent, despite having been interrupted halfway through her sentence by Eric. I guess she just cared about getting that mantis drawn. When Fitz collected the homework, he counted the papers.
“Sixteen,” he said. “Eight of you have already flunked this assignment.”
“I forgot mine,” Ronnie said, raising her hand. “Can I bring it in tomorrow for partial credit?”
Mr. Fitz stared at her for a few seconds, then nodded. “Drop it off at my office before class,” he said. Ronnie pumped her fist.
“Me too, me too!” said Dick Harris, a little too enthusiastically.
“You’re going to do it overnight,” Mr. Fitz said. “I won’t accept that.”
The alarm went off, at 2:30 on the dot. Mr. Fitz immediately turned around and left without so much as a “screw you.” Dick groaned. I knew he wouldn’t have been able to sway Fitz, partially because I suspected Fitz was right. Dick spent most of his time bumming around. Either way, it seemed a little unfair.
“Sorry,” Ronnie said. “If you do need help, I could probably—”
“Buzz off,” Dick said, and he pulled his phone out of his pocket and stomped out. Ronnie sighed.
“Ten minutes to math,” she said, leaning over my shoulder. She sat right behind me, which was useful when she wanted to pass notes. She just slipped them through the slat on the back of my chair. I never actually read them. “That’s enough time to talk about the issue at hand.”
“What’s up, Ronnie?” I asked. I knew what was up. Dead Tracy Stein was up.
“He didn’t even mention her. She was at the top of the Fitz List, and he didn’t even mention that she was gone,” Ronnie said. She brushed her short hair back with one hand, a nervous gesture that I’d become familiar with. “She was his absolute favorite.”
“Yeah, it was creepy,” I say. Fitz had always been pointing out Tracy’s exemplary behavior: her neatness, the way she spoke, her taste in books and movies. A rumor had gone around that he had some perverted old-man crush on her, but when asked, Tracy shuddered in disgust and denied it.
“He’s always perfectly normal and polite,” she’d say, adjusting her ribbon headband. “Adults are allowed to be nice to kids without being creepy about it.”
“Why didn’t he mention her?” Ronnie asked. She looked genuinely distressed. “That’s not normal! If you’re attached to someone, you notice if they disappear!”
“He probably didn’t want any drama,” I said, even though that didn’t feel like much of an explanation.
“Still, an A-rank Fitz-Lister…” Ronnie said.
“You make it sound so weird,” I said. She was making me nervous. “I don’t think that list is even real. Why would he rank people like that?”
“Uh, because he likes some of them and he hates the other ones?” Ronnie said. “Maybe he doesn’t write it down, but you gotta admit that he treats you worse than he treats Eric, and he treats Dolly worse than he treats you. I don’t get why he likes Eric so much. He’s always breaking rules.”
“’Cause Eric’s a suck-up,” I said. “Otherwise, Fitz would have called him out on his secret vape. Everyone knows he has one.”
“If you had a secret vape, he’d murder you,” Ronnie said. “He’s so blatant about who he likes and dislikes. It’s terrible.”
“I don’t pay that much attention to that,” I said. “What defines ‘worse,’ anyway?”
“Eric said ‘here,’ and Fitz didn’t even blink. You said it, and he basically set you on fire. Also, did you see the way he doted on him? Poor Olga…”
I shrugged halfheartedly. Olga was another one of Ronnie’s idols, so of course she’d side with her. I didn’t really care that much if Mr. Fitz liked other kids better than me. I wasn’t planning on some kind of fancy academic career. I didn’t even like English all that much. I just wanted to survive high school and get on with my life.
At the time, I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be.