“Things Are Better Now” by Robert Maxwell


"Your dad," the seasoned teacher smirked, jabbing a finger at a cocky boy named Patterson, "and your mom," whirling his laser gaze onto a pudgy girl with nasty pink hair, "both your parents. I taught them," he chuckled, shaking his head with disdain. The boy made a rude face. The teacher made a ruder one.

"Yes sir, I've taught just about all your folks at one time or another..." He moved quickly to the front of the room. "...and that's how I know that you, Patterson, are a troublemaker. Born and bred. It's in your genes. Your daddy was trouble. And I've certainly seen your grandfather down at the Legion. Trouble with a capital T." All the kids laughed, except Patterson. The teacher, the legendary Gary Walsh, chuckled along with his barb.

"Alright, enough of this. You guys waste your education laughing all day in school like this and the Chinese will flatten us. The buggers even go to school on Saturday, you know!"

A new boy named Lee stopped smiling.

"Mr. Walsh," whined a thin boy with glasses, "can I get a drink?" Walsh laughed.

"Oh, you need a drink, do you? Fat chance, Flanagan. You've been in class five minutes. You're not getting up ‘til you're dryer than a prune."

The boy knew better than to protest. This was Mr. Walsh after all, not some bleeding-heart kid-lover fresh out of teacher's college. Legend has it that Mr. Walsh once threw Edmund Donivan over a desk for cheating on a test. That was in '73, but time hadn't done much to erase the collective memory.

"Alright Flanagan. I'm feeling merciful today. Since it's the first day back from holidays, go get a drink. But make it snappy!"

Flanagan blinked, not sure what to make of the change in situation, his thick glasses exaggerating the bewilderment.

"Hello? Anybody in there? I said you can go, Flanagan. Unless you'd rather waste the day in La-La Land. Wake up you boob!"

More laughs. Hot blood flushed Flanagan's cheeks as he stood up and shuffled towards the door.

"Anyone else want to divide their time equally between work and water breaks?"

No one breathed.

"Didn't think so. Jamie! Hand out these history textbooks. I'm going to teach you kids about the time the British whipped French ass in less than fifteen minutes on the Plains of Abraham."

A dark-haired boy named Claude groaned softly.

"What's the matter, Clod? Does your stomach hurt?"

"Huh?" was all the boy could manage. Not a response Mr. Walsh appreciated.

"I asked if you have a stomach ache. You were groaning like a woman in labour."

Someone snorted. Then laughter broke out for the third time that morning. Claude's fists clenched beneath his desk. It wasn't easy being a French kid in what had to be the most English part of the country.

"Well?" Mr. Walsh demanded, his voice suddenly rising.

"No," stammered Claude at last, looking at his desk. "I'm fine."

"Then don't disturb my class with your noises. Now, about those poor Frenchies on the Plains of Abraham..."



When the morning bell rang forty-five minutes later, Claude slammed his history textbook shut fast enough to squish a housefly. He had his coat on and was out the door for recess before most of the class were out of their seats. Two hours passed, and so did French class, music, and lunch. Back in the homeroom, math with Mr. Walsh struck like a falling anvil in a roadrunner cartoon.

"Martin, two out of ten." Martin burrowed into his sweater.

"Alicia, three out of ten." Alicia looked like death would be preferable.

"Flan-dan-agan..."

The boy cringed.

"...Nine out of ten. Very good. Did you cheat?"

Flanagan's sigh of relief was loud enough to justify snickers.

Two pop quizzes and a worksheet later Mr. Walsh ordered the room to pack up and get out moments before the final, afternoon bell rang.

"Get out of here you maggots. You think I want you guys wasting my beer and cormorant time?"

No one did. Outside school, Mr. Walsh was known for two things: drinking beer and shooting cormorants. Anyone foolish enough to interfere with either obviously hadn't heard the old stories. Probably because there weren't many brave enough to repeat them.

The class stood up. A herd formed, heading for the door. Mr. Walsh barked.

"Clod!"

The boy stopped, fear and annoyance on his face.

"I'm part French, you know. On my mother's side. I'm allowed to make fun. Just don't let anyone know about me."

Claude's eyes widened, as Mr. Walsh winked.

"See you tomorrow, kid."



He never did. Two seconds after blasting the third cormorant of the evening, Gary Walsh's left arm exploded in pain, dropping the warm 12-gauge onto the limestone rocks along the shore. The pain spread to his chest. He knew something was wrong when his foot kicked spasmodically, knocking over his open Coors. He'd been drinking for half a century, and never wasted a beer before.

"Things must be bad," he grunted. Then his eyes rolled and he fell backwards, taking his army green lawn chair with him...




"Good morning, class! My name is Miss Barnes," the slightly overweight woman with hair dyed too dark chirped, "and I'll be taking over for Mr. Walsh until the school board finds a full-time replacement."

Every word was rehearsed. She paused to sip her coffee. Her breath was awful.

"Where's Mr. Walsh?" Claude asked loudly, surprised to realize that he actually wanted to know.

"I'm not at liberty to say just now," the woman smiled, double chin wobbling slightly. "Like I said, I'll be taking over for Mr. Walsh until the board replaces him permanently. Now, will someone please tell me where you left off in your history textbooks?"

"Page thirty-two," the class pleaser piped up.

Pages ruffled.

"Ah yes. Have you learned about the brutality the British imposed on the French on the Plains of Abraham yet..."


Two months later the board still hadn't found a replacement for Mr. Walsh, but Miss Barnes was seriously considering resignation anyway.

"Good morning, class."

A chorus of laughter rose. So did a squadron of paper airplanes and a flurry of goopy, pen-launched spitballs. Miss Barnes fought tears, then lost. Wet rivulets of mascara flowed downwards, highlighting wrinkles that hadn't been there in September. She hid her face behind a quivering hand.

"Open your history textbooks, please."

A few kids obeyed.

"We're the British, and Miss Cow-Barn is the French on the Plains of Abraham," Patterson shouted eagerly. "Let's get her!"

Spitballs flew in a focused line. Miss Barnes, taking cover, stumbled out of the room, silently sobbing. She never learned how to deal with a mob in teacher's college.



That night the principal phoned Miss Barnes at home, causing her to spill herbal tea all over her lap.

"I want you to stay on, Gloria. You like the kids, and it shows... just between you and me... you don't pick on them like Gary did."

Miss Barnes pressed her lips together hard enough to turn them white.

"It sounds harsh, but as a principal I'm glad he's gone. He didn't understand the new policies and new psychologies. He practically bullied the kids, and we all know the harm that does. Why some of the parents liked him is beyond me. Things are so much better now, don't you think?"