Ms. Muir’s sister died young from aggressive breast cancer, and she’d listened at the funeral to a priest, a man who’d never met her sister, sum up those thirty-eight years in twenty minutes: April was an ideal mother to two beautiful children, a beloved wife, a compassionate and respected nurse. She donated money, time, love to place abandoned dogs and cats in loving homes. She had hiked Half Dome, paddled through the Grand Canyon, and walked along the Great Wall of China. Et cetera.
Ms. Muir thought, in the type of melancholy moment she would not say she was prone to, that for her own eulogy a priest would only need half the time. But if she got to work on her own life she imagined she could fill in plenty of blanks, give her own eulogizer a bit more material. The idea so struck at the heart of young promise and potential that, though she never took up rock climbing or started volunteering herself, she felt she must adapt it into an assignment for her students.
This was the one assignment Ms. Muir—and it was Ms., no student’s errant Mrs. ever going uncorrected—could call inspired. No one could say the rest of her curriculum was lacking, but adequate was an apt enough verdict, and matched the general consensus held by her colleagues and administrators. In the halls her students had much different words for her, none so mild as “adequate” in their vocabulary, but she had little mind for student popularity, not sharing the need of some of the younger faculty to be any of those variety of entertainers: a ringleader, a poet maker, an iconoclast.
She was a teacher, simply, with few pretensions. They came to her in August. They left in June writing slightly better sentences, citing sources correctly. They went elsewhere to learn more or they became auto mechanics. The work was not, as so many dreamed, a cloud in the sky where ideas flowed freely, imagination spoke uninhibited, and rules were broken for poetry’s sake. English class was for teaching students how to use English.
Near the beginning of each year, she asked her seniors to each write a eulogy for him or herself, and each year she felt the pleasing tingle at, just once, compromising her tenets of rhetorical technique and grammatical purity for the sake of an assignment that would agitate her students’ souls, get them excited about their homework.
Each year there was one class (two in a bad year) whose chemistry for some inscrutable reason yielded particularly acidic results, a class where no assignment went unquestioned and no fight unpicked, and every question she asked died in the open air—but the year of her forty-second birthday her sixth period class was more like a refugee camp where a squabble over a can of tuna could escalate to murderous proportions. She’d had classes from hell before, but for the first time, she wondered if the administration wasn’t toying with her.
“Why English?” she asked her classes. “What, do you think, is the purpose of these classes?”
“Boring the shit out of me,” said Kyle Landry, off to Cal next year on athletic scholarship. That would be a reckoning.
“Study hall,” someone shouted.
“Cheaper than a lobotomy.”
There was a whole chorus. Assignments came in half-assed, even from the top kids. Ms. Muir related. “If you treat your assignments like busywork, I’ll make sure you’re busy.” A five-page research paper, due in one week. The class erupting, not just in groans but shouting, parliamentary fireworks, Kyle Landry towering above her, the vice principal called to escort him out.
The essays came back at three scant pages, researched with a simple web search, the margins extended to thick white frames—F’s, sixty-five percent of them, and Ms. Muir left no question that the grades would stand, that there would be no extra credit, that they were welcome to stay their course, but should be aware that they would not pass, nor would they cross the stage at graduation.
The first prank manifested on a night when Ms. Muir had stayed up to watch the The Tonight Show and couldn’t sleep afterward. Fetching her laptop to the couch, her apartment lit only by the twin screens, the muted TV flickering like a big square candle, she searched her email, not expecting anyone to have emailed her except perhaps an annoyed parent, something to which she could take a perverse pleasure in sending a terse response, the time stamp past midnight.
Her inbox, she was surprised to find, had filled to its 1,000 message capacity in the few hours since she’d last checked, all the new titles obscene. When she clicked on the first message, her screen became a flurry of activity, new browser windows opening and proliferating, viral, exponential. And the images, each displayed for, what, half a second: tanned, shimmering skin, beast faces, strange contours of alien plastic. Penises entering vaginas, mouths, other orifices, always penetration even between two women. It took five minutes for the new replications and permutations of human contact to exhaust themselves, for the screen to settle on its top image: a woman sitting astride a man, turned around backwards so she couldn’t even see her beau’s face. It was a way Ms. Muir had never imagined to make love.
Rebooting the computer might do the work for her of clearing them all away, but it was late, she couldn’t sleep. She decided to close them manually. When she clicked off one, another was beneath it, an overstuffed deck of cards, each a new human mystery. There were a million things to notice for Ms. Muir, who hadn’t had a lover since she had earned her teaching credential, for whom the act had never been lit by more than the pale wash of moon through an open window, never stage lights, reflecting foils, digital lenses, both male and female parts in greater varieties, shapes, sizes, than she could ever have conceived on her own.
A criminal lack of shadow, from a photography standpoint. Any decent grip would have de-cluttered the background. Still, she felt in this catalog of sexuality a more intimate eye into the culture than any book had given her in years. Strange things, strange groupings, three women, two women with one man, two men with one woman, huge parties with pairs coupling everywhere. Some, yes, were so bizarre or painful as to provoke a shudder but she moved on, through 85 pages, a cat lapping up the curious milk.
Arriving at the end, her desktop photo of a cat now someplace better, she remembered that the avalanche of pornography just unleashed upon her computer had come from clicking just one of the new e-mails in her inbox. One of 992. Obviously, one of her students had done this, maybe e-mailed them all himself. Or probably, there was a site somewhere that would do the work for them, just enter the e-mail. That was more in line with sixth period’s ethic.
A few years back a disgruntled student had created a fake account on a dating website to embarrass a young teacher, and in the ensuing witch-hunt principals yanked students into the main office, threatening expulsion, teachers voiced their support for the violated young woman, and campus-police liaisons donned their sternest faces. All for a prank that looked like harmless fun next to this one.
Ms. Muir did not want that. Though imagining the fire and brimstone of vengeance or her most horrid class of students tickled her, though she was loath to bypass an opportunity to remove some the class’s cancers, she decided not to report it and deleted all but four of the spam. They had expected this to fray her, to bring her screeching into the classroom or hiding behind substitutes. Instead, she felt she’d been lent the key to a secret world. And what would they mutter in the halls, when she came in untouched, unmoved by the obscene flood. When she failed to mention it. When they couldn’t tell anything had happened at all.
The commencement of the Eulogy Project repaired her relationship with every class but sixth period, and she still left school each day feeling as if she’d exited a prizefight. Her presentation of the project was her most planned lesson of the year, a lecture designed to be inspiring that took up the entire 45 minutes. She delivered it to each class with only minor variations, not needing notes after all these years.
“Someday you’ll be dead,” she began. “The end. Finis. No more time. It’s hard to imagine now, the full flush of life spread out before you, all those years you don’t know what to do with. Some people don’t have dreams, and they just wander until they reach the end. And most people who have dreams—this is not an inspirational truth, not something most of your teachers will tell you—allow them to fall by the wayside once they finish college for a better paying job, for a mortgage, for a spouse. Or because they’re just tired. They’re just pooped—”
“I just pooped,” said Kyle Landry.
“That your brain can’t listen and control your sphincter at the same time is no shock to me—and then, at the end of all that giving way of more important things to less important things, a guy in black robes and a collar will sum you up, in twenty minutes or less, so your family and friends can cry and begin to forget about you. You’d be surprised how many people live lives that can’t fill twenty minutes. Not even a quarter of an hour of worthwhile life. Suzie was a mom, like two billion other women on the planet. Jim was proud of being a homeowner, just like 60 percent of Americans. Janie loved her poodle. Aw, how sweet. Are these bad things? Of course not. But are they what you really want your life to add up to?”
“Ms. Muir,” Kyle said. “This class makes me feel like I have a brain tumor.”
“You probably do, Kyle.”
The class went on in this vein, Ms. Muir attempting to provoke thought, Kyle and his classmates attempting to provoke Ms. Muir. They insulted her and she fired right back. She talked about the ideal lives from different cultures and about pretensions of immortality through great feats and works. She dodged a paper airplane and sent a student to the office. Rather than trusting this particular class to pass back the assignment rubric from the front row, she distributed them each individually, reiterating the due dates for first and final drafts. The students were packed and milling by the door five minutes before the bell rang, eager, as always to escape. Ms. Muir, as always, was behind her desk rebutting parent emails, her battle face on until the last student cleared out, wondering, in a moment of impatience, what would happen if she opened one of the prank emails on her school computer.
The first call came that weekend, shaking Ms. Muir from sleep just after three a.m.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“This is Edna—Edna Muir, right?”
She hung up. She lay awake not knowing what to think—had she dreamed the first part? Feeling naughty. Whom did she know who would say that? Perhaps it had been a real call. Perhaps it had never happened, just the waters of the sleep world sloshing over the barriers into her memory. Then the phone rang again, another who knew her by name, a different voice, someone’s poor Barry White: “Hey baby, I read about you.”
“Who are you?”
“Just, a guy who likes the same things as you, Sugar.”
She ended the conversation. It rang again five minutes later. She let it go to the machine, but the suitor, if that’s what it was, left no message. It rang again ten minutes later, but again, no message. She took her phone off the hook, satisfied to get more sleep and parse this mystery in the morning, when her mind was less foggy.
But now she could not sleep, her mind on the men who had called her, who were probably still calling her, only redirected to a busy signal. Her thoughts drifted. Many women would think she’d be worn out, frightened, cowed in a dark apartment, two rooms with a particleboard door, a latch made of aluminum, strange men ringing her. Hadn’t you better buy a home? Her mother, always tacking on with your best interest at heart. A forty-year-old woman renting a ramshackle apartment. She had never wanted a house—why, for just her? A lawn to mow, walls to paint, weeds to pull, insurance premiums, high heating bills. Grading papers kept her busy enough, thank you. Nor did she know how to fix anything that wasn’t in written form. There, flow would be constant of strangers in the house—drywallers, plumbers, electricians: men with tattoos inked in penitentiaries. Who could conceive all the things they might do to her?
Once an hour had passed, knowing she might regret it, she put the phone back on the hook and, when it rang a few minutes later, answered it. No one could rape her through the phone, she figured. No one could reach through the receiver and put their hands on her throat.
“This is Edna.”
“Hey,” said the voice, tinged with surprise.
“You’re not going to tell me your name?”
“You’re quiet, Scott. Are you shy?”
“In person I’m an animal.”
“There won’t be any in person. On the phone, you’re just a lamb.”
“Tell me, Scott. Do your friends still call you Scotty? Where did you get my number, some chat room?” She did not ask to investigate. She wanted the image, the lonely man on the computer, ignored by his wife or ridiculed by his female coworkers, looking online for a strip of text that would offer hope to a beggar. She goaded him, calling him Scotty, when he didn’t answer. A McDonald’s bathroom, he said, in town a few miles up the highway from her rental. That was an even better picture. A man squatting to do his unmentionables, looking over to see a name and phone number, with some lascivious description, written or even carved into the particleboard of the stall. What kind of man could see such a thing and think, there’s a woman for me?
Scotty could, but he wasn’t much fun. Just a little lamb. No gusto for life. She hung up and waited for another man to call, a sotto voce to thrum her eardrum with all the things he wanted to do to her, things she’d never before had reason to imagine.
There was no end to them, and she was their saint. Edna Muir, she thought, Patron Saint of Losers, Perverts. Listener to the Lonely. She listened all night.
Nor did Ms. Muir ever report this second prank to the administration, though sixth period continued to resist her. She suspended three students one week but they were all back now. The rough drafts of their eulogies were abominable. What imagination did it take to write Sue Hornberger went to college and became a dentist? Others focused only on elaborate descriptions of the students’ deaths: ski accidents, beheadings in third world countries. In a few cases, Ms. Muir actually enjoyed reading these. Kyle Landry simply scrawled on a piece of paper, immediately before handing it in, Kyle Landry achieved immortality.
“You know if you fail my class, Cal can rescind your admission.”
“You know you’re a dried up old hag,” he replied.
Suspending him would simply feed his image and give him a vacation. Her torture would have to be more pointed. She designated the chair in the front row directly opposite her desk the Crush Chair. She said it was so a student who had a crush on her could stare dreamily at her, and she put Kyle in. She could easily be written up, maybe fired for this, but Kyle and his retinue, besides being too self-involved to ask help of the administration, were undoubtedly behind two sexual pranks played on a female teacher—she didn’t need to mention the sword she held over their heads. They knew.
A girl in sixth went down on a boy in the back of the room during one of her lectures, hiding under the desk. No one said anything. They presented a united front. Ms. Muir, pacing across the front of the room, making notes on the board, glimpsed the ponytail bobbing in the back corner, but continued on after the moment of shock had passed, not giving them the satisfaction of indignation, not sounding the alarm, allowing the act to continue in silence, keeping her movement to the far side of the class. How things would improve if she called the hussy out she couldn’t figure—to the administration she’d be the teacher who’d lost control. To the student body the incident would be her sum total for five years, a rumor passed down, a record to break.
At home the calls kept coming, even in the day. She let most of them ring but answered on occasion, talking to the men, whom she pictured as a frothing pack of wolves, baying in the night. Mainly at night she answered, when she was surfing the internet or watching TV. She let the wolves do the talking, sitting with stiff posture, as if in a job interview.
She had neither opened any more of her porn emails nor deleted them, but the weekend after the in-class blowjob and the fireworks of the eulogy drafts, she decided she wanted to see the cascade again. As before, as soon as she clicked the link her screen exploded with sex. Close-ups, panoramics, fish-eye lens. Situations suggested by costume or setting: the mom with her son’s best friend, the teacher with the student, the horny babysitter. Half-real, half-fantasy. The everyday exploding into the sexual, crossing the border.
She was supposed to touch herself looking at this, she knew. It was designed for that. But she didn’t know how. And it was no passion, only a sense of vague obligation, easy to ignore. She was an anthropologist. She studied others.
The eulogies were coming, the final draft next week. The students handed them in with a little reverence, she thought, even sixth period. Not a single student from the trouble class, actually, failed to turn it in. Kyle Landry had no snarky comment. Her prepared rebuttal went unused.
She didn’t know why until she took them home to grade. Sure, periods one through five were earnest enough. The average kids were a bit shortsighted. The advanced kids and the dummies both knew how to dream big, opposite ends of the bell curve stretching their limbs, a typical showing and a small insight, as usual, into the mindsets of her students.
Sixth period offered her something different. She flipped through them on a Saturday morning to find the students had all chosen her as the subject of their eulogies. Every single one, truly, not a holdout among them, no conscientious objectors. Sure, the Chem Club girls and the introspective boys in the class were gentler in their verdicts, some even turning judgment on the class itself—Ms. Muir died of an aneurysm when her sixth period class’s stupidity overwhelmed her brain—but each one, in fine form, explained her death and summarized a life they’d dreamed up for her. Ms. Muir was a lover of disfigured, quadriplegic ferrets, with whom she always identified. Ms. Muir loved dogs, in the gross way.
All were turned in anonymously, the students imagining of course that uniformity of printed font would protect their identities, not realizing that without even cross-referencing other assignments, half of them were revealed by their idiosyncratic grammatical fingerprints. Kyle Landry used “allot” in place of “a lot,” and there his was: Ms. Muir was stabbed ala Julius Cezar by a crowd of students. She was adducted by aliens when she was young and they took out her yuterus and anal probed her allot. That’s why she was always grumpy. No man ever wanted to marry her or even look at her. Or maybe she was a rug muncher. Little is known about this woman because she had no friends. She grew up in a forrest and was raised by apes.
Others: Ms. Muir was raised in a hut in Uzbekistan, where she learned her manners—She was part of an Al Qaeda sleeper cell—She ate stray cats—Ms. Muir wandered Europe for two decades as a gypsy—Ms. Muir survived for years rummaging through the cafeteria trash cans, only to fall victim to the Cheese Zombie shortage of 2009.
It was supposed to hurt, she knew. That’s what it was designed to do. A dagger, tipped with the deadliest poison their young minds could cook up—but reading through them, all thirty-two in one exhausting haul, she felt something else. Appreciation, acknowledgment, wonder. Ms. Muir died of gonorrhea after being sold as a sex slave in Africa—Ms. Muir walked to the North Pole because she still believed in Santa—Ms. Muir climbed Mount Fuji, then skied down it straight into a tree. Look at all the lives they’d given her. She almost wanted to thank them.