NEEDHAM, Mass. Ray Vronick is a former English major who thought he’d hit the big time when his collection of dark short stories–“Anywhere But Here”–garnered a favorable review in The New York Times Book Review three years ago. “I found out that ‘successful short story collection’ is an oxymoron,” he says bitterly as he enters Togo Palazzi Elementary School with this reporter. “A hostess in a nice restaurant makes more money by smiling and saying ‘Right this way’ than a writer gets paid for pouring his heart out.”
Togo Palazzi: The man, the myth, the legend.
So Vronick is thankful that, before he got his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the UMass-Seekonk, he took a year after college to earn his Master of Arts in teaching, which qualified him to act as a substitute teacher. “It’s really the best of both worlds,” he says. “Whenever I’ve got writer’s block, there’s always somebody who’s sick of teaching fourth graders. After one day with those little terrorists, I’m motivated to get cracking so I never have to teach for a living.”
Vronick’s specialty is in demand as more schools try to expand their offerings in “soft” subjects that don’t require hard-and-fast grades. “We could offer painting, but that involves toxic fumes,” says Principal Earl Byrum. “A day of creative writing is just as good, and the kids don’t have to wear smocks.”
The children are given fifteen minutes to fill up two sheets in their politically incorrect Big Chief tablets, then Vronick begins to call them up to read what they’ve written. “Amy Abbott–you’re first!” he says as he reads from the attendance list. “I’ll bet that happens to you a lot, right?”
“Yes!” a little girl with bangs says cheerfully, then begins to read her essay “My Happy Puppy!”
“This summer my family got a puppy! He is cute and fun! One time we gave him a bath–it was a mess!”
Amy continues in this vein for two minutes, then hands in her paper to Vronick, who flyspecks it for errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage.
“Okay, Amy,” he says after a quick review. “That was good, but I’m sort of the new sheriff in town, if you know what I mean, so I have to enforce a rule you may not have had last year.”
“What’s that?” the girl asks with an anxious tone at the prospect of getting less than an A, her lowest grade ever.
“Just this: Every time you use an exclamation point?” Here Vronick stops for emphasis, and to drive home his point.
“Yes?” the girl asks meekly.
“An angel gets sick and dies–okay?”
“Oh,” the girl says, her face clouded over with a look of guilt.
“So next time let’s stick to periods, question marks, and commas after dependent clauses that begin with a subordinating conjunction–okay?”
Next up is Robert Adelson, a husky boy with uncombed hair who would have been held back a year in third grade but was saved by the adoption of a “social promotion” policy by the local school board.
“Let ‘er rip, Robert,” Vronick says, then leans back in his chair, his hands behind his head, to listen.
“My mom is stupid,” Adelson begins. “She backed over my bike this summer. Vicki Snowden is also dumb. She promised she’d be my girlfriend this year but changed her mind because she says I still pick my nose and eat it. The end.”
Vronick makes a little church-and-steeple with his fingers, then nods in appreciation. “Good, good,” he says as he contemplates a fluorescent light bulb on the ceiling. “You know what Scott Fitzgerald said about writing fiction?”
“Is he in this grade?” Adelson says, drawing a friendly laugh from Vronick.
“No, but I wish he was,” the substitute says. “He was a very great writer and he said ‘What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.’”
The boy looks down at his feet, not sure if he is being criticized or praised.
“Here we have two troubling incidents,” Vronick says as he stands up to walk between the rows of desks. “Where could Robert go from here? Somebody? Anybody?”
When no one responds to his question, Vronick turns back to Adelson. “How did it make you feel when you saw your bike crushed?” he asks.
“Awful,” the boy says.
“And what were you thinking when Vicki dumped you?”
“Actually, it was kind of a relief,” the boy says. “Now I don’t have to sit by her in the cafeteria or nothing.”
“Precisely–you can ‘light out for the territory,’ like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Like Harry Angstrom in John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run,’ you’re free to run away. Masculine irresponsibility is one of the great themes of American literature.”
“My short story was more depressing than yours!”
The children look on with puzzled expressions as Vronick continues his free association. “Women are a dime a dozen, am I right?” he asks, gazing into the faces of several boys in the class.
“I guess,” Adelson says.
“But that bike–did you have stickers and decals on it?” Vronick asks.
“Yeah–also I clipped baseball cards onto it so that the spokes made a noise like a motorcycle.”
“Cool!” Vronick says with youthful enthusiasm that seems inappropriate for a 35-year-old man. “So what’s the lesson we learn from Robert’s double tragedy?”
A shuffling of feet is heard, and the eyes of all but the most conscientious girls in the class are cast downward.
“I’ll tell you,” Vronick says when he realizes the question is too sensitive, and too difficult, for the young minds before him to fathom. “You’re only young once, but you can remain immature forever.”