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Trick's Own Visionary Assignment

Pop Quiz: How does a multiversal teacher search for inspiration? Answer: He takes a "hall pass" to the universe next door!

By Eric WolfPublished about a year ago 8 min read
Trick's Own Visionary Assignment
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

Jeph was twenty-eight years old when the principal called him into her office. He was neither a student, nor the father of one, at the Ramsey Middle School; he did not tremble at the prospect of an ugly confrontation with her, although she was his boss — at least, for the moment — in his reality of choice.

Only a year into his experience of teaching there, he was expecting her to fire him, if anything. He didn’t sweat it. American troops, including a few parents of some of his pupils, were in the misery of the war in Iraq. He knew he didn’t have it a bit as hard as they did, as the fall of two-thousand-and-three began.

Still, it is true: Being summoned to the principal’s office at one’s school is even less thrilling for the teacher, in some occasions, than it is for the student. Jeph Van Niftrik — returning to Ramsey, for a second year did so, out of economic necessity, more than from any sort of confidence that he was getting through to his young charges. He was not heading in to see Janice Rettig, principal, as an enthusiastic educator.

She waved him into her office as she held off on whatever withering response she was preparing to unleash on the person on the other end of her telephone conversation. Rettig was fifty-one, a severe woman who anchored herself in a Methodist certitude that what she was doing was best, for her instructors and their classes. Wesleyan Arminianism, she believed, could bring a believer to a state of grace, of arguable perfection. Jeph did not attend her church; he was the son of former Peace Corps volunteers whose counterculture roots had not fed much religious feeling in him.

Still, he admired how effectively she kept order, in the school. Even the worst-behaved teens could be stunned into silence, gaping at the spectacle of Rettig, marching — there was no better word for it — toward them. He could relate to their trepidation, when she said, “I understand, from some of your colleagues, that you’ve expressed some… frustration with the curriculum.” Jeph wished for a better way to correct her, than just a straight contradiction.

For a moment, he gave his internal chronospatial dial a spin, and traveled to a nearby continuum. He was in an office at Ramsey almost identical to this one; his principal was an Asian-American fellow whom he did not know. A relaxed familiarity flooded him. This was a warm fellow, with whom he enjoyed some camaraderie: “So, Jeph, what did you — I’m sorry, did you get a cup of coffee? Should I get…” The alternate boss leaned out of the office, projecting, “Hey, is there a cup of coffee out there? First morning of our new school year, we need our caffeine... did I anticipate your need, Mister Van Niftrik?” He smiled.

Jeph smiled. He was still smiling when he lost his focus on maintaining this as as his chronospatial setting. He was back before Rettig, in the default reality they shared, and she did not share his amusement. She was in mid-sentence: “ — if we challenge the testing program, we’re putting our funding at risk, and we… pardon me, did I say something funny?”


Jeph rubbed his eyes. He wanted that cup of coffee his alternate-universe boss was trying to put together for him. “It’s not the test,” he semi-lied, although he had his reservations, about the merits of the testing program. “It’s with a man, a teacher, who’s kind of hit an invisible wall. It’s with me. I’m the problem.”

Rettig’s response was right out of a bad sitcom: “I’ll have to call you back. Yes, that’s right.” She broke her phone connection and favored Jeph with her most piercing gaze. “How do you figure this? Are you having some trouble at home, some outside issue, affecting —”

Jeph waved his hands about with the energy of one of his young pupils. “No, it isn’t like that, Janice. I’m trying to connect better with these kids, better than I did last time. The curriculum isn’t perfect, but at least I know how to present it to them. I’m not sure I’m projecting the right way. I want to find out, if it’s cool, how to meet their needs better, by getting to know who they are, as individuals. Take a day, let’s say, to try something… extra.”

Her searching gaze kept on searching for the deeper meaning. “You must have some experience of this from your last school. Were the kids there really much better at following your lead than our little monsters at Ramsey are? Not that I am unsympathetic, you understand. We can’t deviate too much from testing.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Jeph maintained. “Just have to figure out how to pull something out of my hat, I guess.” He bit his bottom lip, a habit he had picked up from his mother when engrossed in working out a problem. “If I could ask them to, I don’t know, write me a paper, about a different topic. Not on the curriculum, but not opposed to it, either. See if I can stimulate their little gray neurons into giving me more than just memorized answers.”

Rettig cleared her throat. “I’m not sure how to advise you, apart from sticking with the curriculum, and making sure the parents don’t come storming down here to ask for your head — and possibly, mine — but if you can do what you’re trying to do here, with a classroom project? I mean… that’s going to be the talk of the next state conference, of the Indiana Teachers Association. Maybe even go national. You ready to be an education superstar, Jeph?”

“Maybe I ought to ask my kids the same question,” he quipped, as she indicated that their meeting was at an end. Of course he had little in the way of palpable clues to his solution, but it gnawed at him all day long. He met the new roster of kids, some of whom he recognized from near-daily sightings in hallways or in the cafeteria, some of them younger siblings of his previous pupils. He was over a week deep into his autumn, when another meeting with his congenial, alternate-universe boss provided him with a valuable clue to his deliverance.


He finished up his week by spending an entire Friday teaching — at Raymond Chiu’s version of Ramsey Middle School. This seemed like a great break in his routine, because he needed a pause in the stress of shouldering Rettig’s stress on the formal testing. It worked out that nearly all of the kids assigned to him attended his homeroom in both universes. A couple of notable exceptions had a curious logic: a scruffy slacker named Kim Anthony was not enrolled in Ray Chiu’s school, but had already become a low-fi comedic star in Janice Rettig’s; and a boy who could have been her opposite number, a severely focused math and science champion called Aaron Dash reversed her attendance formula. It seemed a nice change.

He wound up eating lunch at a table next to principal Chiu’s. Ray Chiu was an energetic man in his middle forties, with a readiness to laugh at something he found funny. It was amazing that he had not lost this trait, working with what Jeph confessed was the age group he found most challenging to teach, or even to enjoy being around — at times lazy and wide-eyed like elementary students at others ready to combat almost any reasonabloe act or statement made by a grown person. “That’s because they’re on the crossroads,” Chiu remarked, as if stating the obvious. “They’re half-and-half, like what I put in my coffee; not babies, but certainly, not older teens. You have already proven you’ve got the real skills, Jeph, if you can bridge that gap, seems to me.”

“I’m with you,” agreed Jeph, and then — he agreed, as it struck him that he was in the perfect position to put Chiu’s wisdom into action. He, Jeph Van Niftrik, straddled the multiverse, lived multiple lives at the same time. Curiosity, or in this case, desperation, whether it was to learn something, to clear his mind, even to get a new perspective, arose in him… and then he would move from one Stream into another, just think on it — and he was there.

Upon his return to his default world, he had only to listen to that world flood him with memories of what he had done in that line, where he both had and had not been, to his recollection and his ignorance alike. It was like having a superpower, and one he wished he could share with his students. So then, it hit him: Why not ask them what they would do, with such a gift?

He ran the idea by Rettig, the following Monday, without adding an unsavory disclosure about his paranormal circumstance. “You didn’t strike me as being the sci-fi type of a person,” she observed drily, but otherwise seemed on board with his proposal to assign a writing assignment to his kids. He worked on the idea after school each night. About a month into the school year, when he felt he could wait no longer, Jeph waited for the bell to ring, the kids to take their seats, and for homeroom to begin. He cleared his throat, and began to present his quirky assignment —

Rettig diplomatically entered the room, and leaned against the far wall. Some of the kids blushed at her appearance; Kim Anthony, of course, found a way to make it amusing for her classmates, raising her hand for a high-five Rettig did not acknowledge. Jeph — Trick — could feel his heart racing. Why was this so, so pressing to him? What would he get out of it, apart from Kim’s, and others’, bafflement, disguised as snark and disdain of a typically adolescent kind?

He counted to five, then to ten, recalled a joke Principal Chiu had told him — and he began: “We’re going to try something a little different today. I would like for each of you to tell me who you all are. I mean, for each of you to tell me all of the people you are.” He waited for a blast of ridicule, but they just gazed at him, expectantly. Rettig did not move, her breath baited. Even the multiverse had to be broken down, into terms these kids could understand. Jeph baited the hook with the magic phrase: Extra credit.

© Eric Wolf 2022.

[[Roam the multiverse with Trick:]

Short StorySci FiHumorFantasy

About the Creator

Eric Wolf

Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail:

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