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About the Author
Julie Schumacher is the author of the short story collection AN EXPLANATION FOR CHAOS. Her debut novel, THE BODY IS WATER, was a finalist for the 1996 Earnest Hemingway foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction and an ALA Notable Book of the Year. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards anthology, as well as the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. Ms. Schumacher is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Minnesota and lives with her family in St. Paul.
Read an Excerpt
Just a block away from the water, on the opposite side of the street, the houses cost fifty or sixty thousand dollars less; they did have a view of the ocean, but the view included our house, with a slice of water on either side. Middle-class families could still afford to rent these homes for a week, which meant that the sidewalks across from ours were always teeming with kids, the smallest ones hunkered down on their knees among the pebbles, faces framed in the cups of their bonnets. Their older brothers and sisters bossed them around. Because Sea Haven was their temporary home, the renters' kids were wild; they took risks. They stole candy and comic books from the stores, threw chunks of jellyfish at strangers, and grappled with one another beneath the pier. They made up lies about themselves and no one knew.
Although we'd been told how lucky we were to live by the ocean, Bee and I had always lied, too, because we had no other houses, no other lives. "Where are you from?" the summer kids would ask, kicking up the smooth white pebbles of the empty lot with their colored sneakers. (Bee and I walked barefoot on the stones; our feet were immune.) "Alaska," Bee said once, to quiet them down. "Juneau, Alaska." They would have believed her but I'd interfered, wanting to describe the polar bears that ate from our hands, the igloos we built, the Eskimo neighbors whose subtle language we knew by heart. "Let's hear you say something Eskimo," a little boy said. I blushed and stuttered out a sentence we had learned in school: "Como te llamas?" Their shrieks of laughter could be heard all the way down the block.
I chewed thejuice from my Popsicle stick and set it down. A boy across the street flipped his middle finger in my direction to impress a friend. I flipped mine back. Never let children take you by surprise.
When people ask me how I can stand to teach gram mar to twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, I answer that this is the stage of life when people are clearly most alive. This is when everything happens: violence, love, sex, betrayal, friendship, fear, generosity, hatred, greed. Everything that will later become refined into boredom and rudeness remains on the surface. In the presence of my students I feel I'm watching volcanoes erupt and glaciers form; I am a witness to magic rites and uncover the secrets of primal things. In adults I see the seeds of what they were: the petty thief, the liar, the goody-goody, the zealot, the brain.
Even so, I'm not always good with children. Some of them like me because I'm young, but they're seldom interested in what I have to offer because my job is to provide them with guidelines and rules at a stage of life during which they've resolved to reject the arbitrary regulations of adults. I can sympathize. They're bleary-eyed, stunned and angry with new knowledge: their parents are loud and ungainly and have sex; the world is running out of trees; God, if alive at all, has an unusual sense of humor; and no true consolation is forthcoming-only this crazed bunching together of fellow sufferers. And even this short-lived comfort will disappear when everyone graduates or reaches the age of twenty-one. Every September we begin with high hopes, disappointing each other every time.
After the last week of school in June I'd sat down to a thick stack of final essays-pages of hand scrawled work, some of it looking as if it had been kept in a pants pocket for many hours. I began to work.
I graded generously, trying to round the grades up whenever I could. I took breaks every hour or so, pacing behind my desk and wondering whether one day, on a charming corner in a foreign city, one of my students would recognize me and tell me over coffee what a meaningful year it had been. I was restless and felt like setting the essays on fire. When there were only a dozen left I went to the store. I carne back, used the bathroom, and sat at my desk again, setting in front of me, on the windowsill, two vials filled with solution. I opened a box of saltines and ate two at a time while checking the timer on my watch. I returned to the essays. "Even if this was the worst paper I ever did," a student wrote, "and anyway its not, I know a lot about the author of this book and his ideas." I gave him a B. "Try to be more specific. Well done." An other student argued, "What a writer does is his own personal business. Even if he doesn't believe in God, which I do. In many respects therefore the ideas in this book should offend everyone." B+. "Sheryl," I wrote, "try to be more specific." The liquid in one of the vials was getting smoky; the other was clear. "For example, have you tried to define God? What sort of deity are you referring to? Do you believe in the existence of a divine plan?" I crossed these comments out. "Well done. Have a nice summer."
I corrected the last few essays and got out my grade sheet to enter the grades. All the drawers of my dresser were open wide, and my suitcase, held together with masking tape, lay like an open mouth on the floor. As soon as I finished I knew I had to go somewhere, had to be gone. I reread the instructions on the different vials. One said, "The liquid will remain pink if the test is negative." The other said that the liquid would turn gray if the test was positive. I felt a momentary wave of nausea, popped the lid of a can of seltzer, and went down my list. Albert, Michael. Ayers, Carl. Bettler, Sue. I thought of driving all night and day to get to Bee's house in Atlanta but knew when I arrived unexpectedly my sister would meet me at the door with an expression of virtuous and unsurprised suffering, like a seal. I didn't want to go to Bee's; there was only one place I knew I had to go. Bezinsky, Jay. Castler, Harriet. One of the liquids now looked blue. Was there a separate color indicating that the test-taker was making a mistake? Was there a color that said, "Warning: you are not fit to assume the responsibilities that this test may place on you?"
Grayson, Will. Letchler, Kareen. Kareen was tiny; she had wrists as fragile as chalk. I always found it difficult to think of the delicate, shy students as potential adults; they seemed to lack experience even as children, and it was hard to let them go. Pearson, Sheryl. Tiffordson, Wynn. Wynnie had skipped a grade and seemed almost too young to be fully human; yet I'd seen carved on the lavatory door WYNN T. TONGS (I assumed this meant "tongues") MICHAEL Z. The second liquid was now distinctly gray. I stared at it, expecting a fuller fortune: "The series of random events that is your life will coalesce." Yalisove, Pam. Zinzer, Stephanie. I had given twenty-nine As, far too many, and a good number of Bs. Only a handful of hopeless cases ended up with less. I folded the grade sheet, signed it, and threw both vials into the toilet. An hour later I was driving to my father's house.
Copyright © 1997 by Julie Schumacher
What People are Saying About This
"Penetrating, drenched in memory, free of nostalgia, propelled by fierce urgency, and sometimes very funny."
"A wonderful and original first novel, one of the best I've read in years."