What does it mean? Since early childhood this simple query has been posed to us constantly in a myriad of guises. Is she angry with me or does she want to throw me down on the bed where all the guests have heaped their coats? Have I been good enough to make it through the Pearly Gates and do they have ice cream in heaven? Is Elvis still alive?
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In the meantime we are studying common fractions. But I prefer to sit in this too-small seat with the desktop cramping my thighs and examine the life around me. There are thirty-two in the class, which is launched every morning with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. My own allegiance, at the moment, is divided between Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, who sits across the aisle from me all day long and is, like Miss Mandible, a fool for love.
Strangely neither she nor any of the other children seem to see any incongruity in my presence here. Every day I must wait until Geography to put down such thoughts as I may have had during the morning about my situation and my fellows. I have tried writing at other times and it does not work. Either the teacher is walking up and down the aisles during this period, luckily, she sticks close to the map rack in the front of the room or Bobby Vanderbilt, who sits behind me, is punching me in the kidneys and wanting to know what I am doing.
This explains the continual roaring sounds which seem to emanate from his desk; he is reproducing a record album called Sounds of Sebring. It may be that Miss Mandible also knows this, at some level, but for reasons not fully understood by me she is going along with the game. When I was first assigned to this room I wanted to protest, the error seemed obvious, the stupidest principal could have seen it; but I have come to believe it was deliberate, that I have been betrayed again.
Now it seems to make little difference. This life-role is as interesting as my former life- role, which was that of a claims adjuster for the Great Northern Insurance Company, a position which compelled me to spend my time amid the debris of our civilization: rumpled fenders, roofless sheds, gutted ware houses, smashed arms and legs.
After ten years of this one has a tendency to see the world as a vast junkyard, looking at a man and seeing only his potentially mangled parts, entering a house only to trace the path of the inevitable fire. Therefore when I was installed here, although I knew an error had been made, I countenanced it, I was shrewd; I was aware that there might well be some kind of advantage to be gained from what seemed a disaster.
The role of The Adjuster teaches one much. I decline, refusing to take unfair profit from my height. It is like the litany chanted in the dim miserable dawns of Texas by the cadre sergeant of our basic training company. In the Army, too, I was ever so slightly awry. It took me a fantastically long time to realize what the others grasped almost at once: that much of what we were doing was abso lutely pointless, to no purpose.
I kept wondering why. Then something happened that proposed a new question. One day we were commanded to whitewash, from the ground to the topmost leaves, all of the trees in our training area.
The corporal who relayed the order was nervous and apologetic. Later an off-duty captain sauntered by and watched us, white splashed and totally weary, strung out among the freakish shapes we had created. He walked away swearing.
I understood the principle orders are orders , but I wondered: Who decides? Yesterday she viciously kicked my ankle for not paying attention when she was attempting to pass me a note during History. It is swollen still. But Miss Mandible was watching me, there was nothing I could do.
Oddly enough Sue Ann reminds me of the wife I had in my former role, while Miss Mandible seems to be a child. She watches me constantly, trying to keep sexual significance out of her look; I am afraid the other children have noticed.
At times I believe it was instigated by my wife of former days, whose name was. I am only pretending to forget. I know her name very well, as well as I know the name of my former motor oil Quaker State or my old Army serial number US Her name was Brenda, and the conversation I recall best, the one which makes me suspicious now, took place on the day we parted. I am leaving you forever and I trust that without me you will perish of your own inadequacies.
Which are considerable. She has noticed the discrepancy between the size of my desk and my own size, but apparently sees it only as a token of my glamour, my dark man-of -the-world-ness.
Miss Mandible is a clean-desk teacher, I discovered. There was nothing except her gradebook the one in which I exist as a sixth grader and a text, which was open at a page headed Making the Processes Meaningful.
I read: "Many pupils enjoy working fractions when they understand what they are doing. They have confidence in their ability to take the right steps and to obtain correct answers. However, to give the subject full social significance, it is necessary that many realistic situations requiring the processes be found. Many interesting and lifelike problems involving the use of fractions should be solved. Things are done differently now. The children, moreover, are in some ways different from those who accom panied me on my first voyage through the elementary schools: "They have confidence in their ability to take the right steps and to obtain correct answers.
When Bobby Vanderbilt, who sits behind me and has the great ta tical advantage of being able to maneuver in my disproportionate shadow, wishes to bust a classmate in the mouth he first asks Miss Mandible to lower the blind, saying that the sun hurts his eyes.
When she does so, bip! My generation would never have been able to con authority so easily. My path was not particularly of my own choosing. My career stretched out in front of me like a paper chase, and my role was to pick up the clues. When I got out of school, the first time, I felt that this estimate was substantially correct, and eagerly entered the hunt.
I found clues abundant: diplomas, membership cards, campaign buttons, a marriage license, insurance forms, discharge papers, tax returns, Certificates of Merit. They seemed to prove, at the very least, that I was in the running. But that was before my tragic mistake on the Mrs. Anton Bichek claim. I misread a clue. Do not misunderstand me: it was a tragedy only from the point of view of the authorities.
But without my encouragement Mrs. Bichek would never have had the self-love to prize her injury so highly. The company paid, but its faith in me, in my efficacy in the role, was broken. Henry Goodykind, the district manager, expressed this thought in a few not altogether unsympathetic words, and told me at the same time that I was to have a new role.
I know this because I am a Fire Marshal, not only for our room but for the entire right wing of the second floor. This distinction, which was awarded shortly after my arrival, is interpreted by some as another mark of my somewhat dubious relations with our teacher. My armband, which is red and decorated with white felt letters reading FIRE, sits on the little shelf under my desk, next to the brown paper bag containing the lunch I carefully make for myself each morning.
One of the advantages of packing my own lunch I have no one to pack it for me is that I am able to fill it with things I enjoy. The peanut butter sandwiches that my mother made in my former existence, many years ago, have been banished in favor of ham and cheese. When school is out I hardly smoke at all. It is only in the matter of sex that I feel my own true age; this is apparently something that, once learned, can never be forgotten.
I live in fear that Miss Mandible will one day keep me after school, and when we are alone, create a compromising situation. To avoid this I have become a model pupil: another reason for the pronounced dislike I have encountered in certain quarters.
But I cannot deny that I am singed by those long glances from the vicinity of the chalkboard; Miss Mandible is in many ways, notably about the bust, a very tasty piece. Most of my classmates are polite about this matter, as they would be if I had only one eye, or wasted, metal-wrapped legs. I am viewed as a mutation of some sort but essentially a peer. However Harry Broan, whose father has made himself rich manufacturing the Broan Bathroom Vent with which Harry is frequently reproached; he is always being asked how things are in Ventsville , today inquired if I wanted to fight.
An interested group of his followers had gathered to observe this suicidal under taking. We are now friends forever. He has given me to understand privately that he can get me all the bathroom vents I will ever need, at a ridiculously modest figure. How lifelike, how womanlike, is her tender solicitude after the deed! Her pride in my newly acquired limp is transparent; everyone knows that she has set her mark upon me, that it is a victory in her unequal struggle with Miss Mandible for my great, overgrown heart.
Even Miss Mandible knows, and counters in perhaps the only way she can, with sarcasm. I mumble that I have bumped my leg. I nod and smile over my shoulder in acknowledgment; Frankie hides her head under her desk. I have seen these magazines being passed around among the girls sometimes one of the boys will condescend to inspect a particularly lurid cover.
Miss Mandible confiscates them whenever she finds one. I leaf through Movie-TV Secrets and get an eyeful. We know how it looks and we know what the gossipers will do. I am happy to know that the picture is not really what it seems; it seems to be nothing less than divorce evidence. What do these hipless eleven-year-olds think when they come across, in the same magazine, the full-page ad for Maurice de Paree, which features "Hip Helpers" or what appear to be padded rumps?
Sue Ann knows, I am sure; it is obvious that she has been studying their history as a guide to what she may expect when she is suddenly freed from this drab, flat classroom.
I am angry and I shove the magazines back at her with not even a whisper of thanks. Today it is raining, but inside the air is heavy and tense with passion. Guilt hangs about me. She is not responsible, I know, for what she reads, for the models proposed to her by a venal publishing industry; I should not have been so harsh. Perhaps it is only the flu. Nowhere have I encountered an atmosphere as charged with aborted sexuality as this.
Miss Mandible is helpless; nothing goes right today. Amos Darin has been found drawing a dirty picture in the cloakroom.
Me and Miss Mandible
In the meantime we are studying common fractions. But I prefer to sit in this too-small seat with the desktop cramping my thighs and examine the life around me. There are thirty-two in the class, which is launched every morning with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. My own allegiance, at the moment, is divided between Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, who sits across the aisle from me all day long and is, like Miss Mandible, a fool for love. Strangely neither she nor any of the other children seem to see any incongruity in my presence here. Every day I must wait until Geography to put down such thoughts as I may have had during the morning about my situation and my fellows.
‘Me And Miss Mandible’ by Donald Barthelme
The narrator accepts his odd situation and even admits that he has long felt different from others and is in need of "reworking. The narrator records the activities, conflicts, and percolating emotions of his fellow fifth-graders, such as when Sue Ann viciously kicks his ankle to revenge a perceived grievance, or Bobby Vanderbilt manipulates Miss Mandible, or Frankie Randolph concentrates on the love affairs of Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. At the end of the story, Sue Ann Brownley discovers the narrator having sex with Miss Mandible in the cloakroom. The narrator fails to convince the school authorities that he is not a corruptible minor, and Miss Mandible is consequently "ruined but fulfilled. Infused with the surrealism and irrationality, it led many commentators to compare Barthelme with Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Through his diary entries the narrator discloses that his adult life has consisted of a grim stint in the army, when he felt his identity slipping away from him, followed by a marriage and career that both ultimately failed.