The Classroom Beneath Our Classroom by Melissa Goodrich and Dana Diehl
New associate fiction editor Brenna Womer on today's bonus fiction: A collaboration between Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich, “The Classroom Beneath Our Classroom” is a fast-paced story of childhood curiosity, adventure, and heroism. For much of the time the story reads as upbeat and spirited, something in the vein of The Goonies or, more recently, Stranger Things, but it doesn’t fail to leave the reader considering the ways in which those qualities we so admire about children are quelled rather than cultivated.
The Classroom Beneath Our Classroom
Sometimes in the gaps between lessons, those rare moments when no one is whispering or coughing or tapping their marker against the desk leg or humming without knowing it or sharpening their pencil, we hear them. The classroom beneath our classroom.
The classroom beneath our classroom is better behaved than we are. We hear them reciting their times tables in unison, no voice hollering above the rest, no voice speaking a beat out of sync. In the morning they say the Pledge, and they sound like they mean it—not mean, half sarcastic, like we do.
Our classroom is on the ground floor, so there shouldn’t be a classroom beneath our classroom, and yet there is. The students’ voices rise up through the pipes, through the vents. Sometimes when we’re doing jumping jacks to test our heart rate, or when the teacher’s back is turned and we’re testing our limits, seeing how loud we can get before she quiets us, we hear a rapping against the floor—a quick staccato—and we all freeze, imagining the wood of a ruler slap slap slapping. Sometimes instead of a slapping it’s a thump, a broomstick sound, or the whack of the students all closing their books together, loudly.
When it happens, we look down.
I can hear you, it says, that slam below us. I know exactly what you’re up to.
Sometimes our teacher threatens us with the classroom beneath our classroom. She says, “You think you have it hard with me. I ought to send you to her classroom. Then you’ll really miss me. Then you’ll realize how easy you have it.”
We ask if she’s ever met the teacher in the classroom beneath our classroom, and she tells us to put our feet on the floor, that there’s only two minutes of class yet, that we’ve lost recess time.
If one of us is misbehaving she’ll say, “I’m this close to asking you to leave my classroom. If you can’t handle being a fourth grader today, I’ll send you downstairs.”
Sometimes we feel guilty for being the class that we are. The class that invokes exasperated looks between teachers in the hallways. The class that gets the field trip to the county jail instead of the zoo. The class that teachers swear prompted Mrs. Philips in the second grade to have a stroke when she had us last January.
But other times we love to be that class. Love to be the class that started a petition to stop Miss Thomas from wearing purple eye shadow on Mondays. The class that had a water bottle of vodka hidden under the slide in the playground for a whole month before one of the monitors discovered it. Love to be the class that spits, that hollers, that isn’t afraid when a teacher says they’re disappointed in us. Love watching that split, like watching a seam come loose, when a teacher gives up on us, gives in, just lets us jump chair to chair or punch each other in the throat, who resigns herself to her desk, behind her computer, rubbing her temples, where she belongs.
On the playground, we try to identify the kids from the classroom beneath the classroom. We expect them to be paler than us, part mole creature. We expect them to have inhalers in their pockets and pencil pouches containing only sharpened pencils. We expect them to have hair parted down the middle and T-shirts with the tags carefully clipped off so they’re never in danger of popping out.
We find kids who we think fit the description. But they are all friends’ of our siblings, or neighbors, or kids we know from a different year. No one’s heard of the students that learn beneath.
We think about how we’ve seen the staircase that goes upstairs, but never the staircase that goes downstairs. One day we get curious and look for the downstairs staircase that must exist somewhere between our classroom and the front office. We feel the floors with our hands, for a loose tile, a trapdoor. We stage a food-fight and get the boys in our grade to pee all over the toilet paper in the restroom while an elite team crawls on their bellies toward the teacher’s lounge, hunting for clues. We tap the walls, listen for a hollow sound. Maybe it’s behind a locker. Maybe it starts on the roof, that one locked door only the buff PE teacher has a key to. We’re convinced we’re hearing things. Our ears prick up when we hear footsteps.
One day the classroom below us is learning jiu jitsu, and we hear the technique, the lessons, and…it’s the voice of a child. A young girl, about our age. It’s a quiet voice, it’s hard to hear through to one floor when our teacher is trying to get us to understand figurative language, so we have to get quiet. We fold our hands. Our ears stretch around the sound of whiteboard markers. I drop a pencil so I can crawl under my desk to better pick up the sound.
The voice below us says, “A smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant by using proper technique, leverage, and most notably, taking the fight to the ground.” I can’t tell if she is reading from a book or reciting. She sounds strong. I hear a tap against a whiteboard and the scribbling of notes, 30 pencils simultaneously. “In side control, you pin your opponent to the ground from the side of his body.” Where did she learn to talk like this? I hear a smart set of footsteps descending what sounds like the south wall of our classroom, and the classroom below us stirs. The girl’s voice stops. A door opens and closes. “I’m so impressed,” says the teacher in the classroom beneath our classroom. “You’re the only class in school who behaves even when I step out. Maybe we’ll even get recess tonight. I’ll make a special call to the night crew.”
I freeze under my desk my pencil in hand. My teacher taps on my desk, says, “Back in your seat,” and I do it, mummified.
All week we’ve been behaving. Our teacher seems pleased, pats us on the heads, says, “You’ve really grown,” says, “I’m writing a note to your parents about this new positive attitude.” But really we’ve just been listening. Waiting for the switch that happens when the teacher in the classroom below our classroom steps out, how the students seem to turn towards one voice, a girl who seems to stand on her chair, and says, “We have only this choice. No one is coming for us.” She sounds older, her voice deep, serious.
Our hearts strain in our sweatshirts. It’s winter. We wonder how cold it is to stay underground. We wonder if they live there. They must, since we’ve never seen them. The classroom below our classroom is learning how to knit, how to build fires. They ask sharp, inquisitive questions during class. They read all the survival books they can. Now that we’ve started listening, we can hear so much that we couldn’t hear before.
At recess, we convene under the double slide, mittened hands cupping mouthes, knees touching.
“We should tell someone,” one of us says. “We should see the principal. Demand answers. Those kids are being held against their will.”
“No, no,” the rest of us say. “All of the adults are in on this. We can’t let them know what we know.”
The girl’s voice had awakened something in us. A desire to turn all of our spitting and lying and fighting into something of storybooks, something of heroes. When the playground monitor walks by us, we lean in closer, digging our knees into the woodchips.
We create a Plan.
It’s decided that since I live closest to the school, since I have a ground floor window, since I bike to school, anyway, it makes the most sense that I’m the one to carry out the Plan. I will do it during a full moon so I don’t get caught with my headlamp. They will choose the night for me, on my behalf. It is starting to feel like my class is one entity and I am another one, separate, just me.
I think about writing a letter before I go. I start one—Dear Mom, Dear Dad, Dear Classmates—but throw it out before I get any farther. Writing a letter feels too much like giving up. I slip out my window in a thick sweater, my mother’s cell-phone in my back pocket, a windup flashlight for once I get to the school. I have our teacher’s security pass, which we swiped when we accidentally knocked over all the graded work on her desk, and when we went in a mad rush to “help” her. You’d be amazed what teachers don’t notice when we encircle them like a hive. It isn’t even that hard.
Outside the grass is frosted and the moonlight hits the hoods of cars, the eyes of cats, the glass windows of the school building. I think about how easy it would be to go back home now, to tell my classmates that I hadn’t found anything and leave it there. But then I remember the girl and her voice. The girl who’d given up on rescue, but would be so grateful once it came.
The security key works. I’d half wished it wouldn’t. The whole school is dark and my shoes are so loud on the concrete floors I echo. I slip them off. I want to come in stealth. I want to not be known. I have no idea where the staircase is, so I start by going to my classroom. What I know for certain is they’re below me, and if they’re in there all the time, this is my best bet. I go into the classroom and lay my ear against the tile. I don’t hear anything. I mean, I hear the humming of a street lamp outside, I hear my heart coming up for air. The fluids in my ears are making noises. I knock against the ground with one knuckle. Then I think I hear someone cough.
“Hello? Is someone down there?”
I hear a rustling, but that could be anything, could be me hearing my hearing, repositioning my body so my ear is against the floor.
“I hear you all the time,” I say, loud enough to be heard below. “I want to meet you. I want to help you.”
But it’s quiet. Maybe they’re all sleeping. Maybe they go somewhere else to sleep.
“If you can hear me, do something. Tap the top of your classroom with a broomstick. Close a book. Cough again.”
And while I’m waiting for something to happen, my classroom doors open. And there's a flashlight beam so bright I can’t see who’s holding it. The flashlight, I mean. I mean, the beam is beaming into my eyeballs, and I can’t see, but they seem tall. They’re strong when they grab me. “Hey,” I shout. “Don’t touch me. Let go of me,” and I rip myself away, run through the door, am moving backwards, sideways, I can’t see because of the beam that blew up my eyeballs, and next thing I know I’m stumbling down the stairs, how can I be stumbling down the stairs, how could they have been here all along, and when I hit the last one, I know it. I’m where the other ones are. I’m beneath the real school.
It’s hard to tell how much time is passing down here. We don’t have clocks. We can’t see the sun. It could be 4 in the morning and we’re learning algebra. I don’t know algebra yet. Down here, I’m the stupid one, I’m exotic, my skin is so brown.
I keep my eyes peeled for the girl, I keep waiting for her to raise her hand so I can know her by her voice. Maybe this isn’t her room. Maybe there is a classroom beneath every classroom, and I’ve stumbled into the wrong one. When the teacher leaves us to get some coffee – maybe to see some sky? – we don’t get out of our seats. Some of the kids close their eyes. Some of them scratch their knees. I lean over to one, say, “What’s in her desk? Want to go see? I can guard the door.” But she turns me in with Ms. Maypole returns. That’s her actual name. She is skinny and smile-less. She stands behind me when I say the pledge. I am learning the meaning of fervor, and not just because I am memorizing the dictionary one letter at a time.
While Ms. Maypole is passing out worksheets, I ask my elbow-partner which is the girl who knows jit jitsu.
Ms. Maypole doesn’t have to turn around. “Someone doesn’t want recess tonight,” she says, and that gives me hope. Night recess means outside, means above-ground, means a chance.
I start to form new plans. The playground is surrounded by a concrete wall that no kid has ever been able to climb. I brainstorm on the corner of my paper, pretending to calculate the degrees of angles. I could toss a note wrapped around a rock. I imagine my old classmates waiting on the other side with open palms. Classmates who’ve been forming their own plans, who haven’t stopped strategizing under the slide at recess. Maybe they’ve left a message for me there, maybe they’re tunneling under the walls now, chipping away at tree roots and concrete, passaging my way out.
I behave through trigonometry and phonics and Latin—feet on the floor, eyes on the board, I pretend to be a good kid. When it’s time for history, the teacher separates us into small groups. It’s the first time I’ve left my seat since I arrived. In this classroom beneath the classroom, erasers never seem to wear away, pencils are always sharp. My legs tingle as I stand.
In our small groups, we’re told to prepare presentations on the make-up of a plant cell. As the others shuffle around the desks, a boy I’ve never noticed—a boy with blonde, side-combed hair and dark-rimmed glasses and thin wrists–sidles up to me. He murmurs to me without turning his head, “She’s not here anymore.”
“Who?” I ask, though I know he means the girl.
When he speaks, his lips barely moved. “She wanted to get us out. She wanted us to fight, but they caught on. They always do.”
“Where did they take her?”
He says that he didn’t notice her leave. At some point, he just realized she was gone.
I notice for the first time that there are the perfect amount of students for desks in the room. There was a desk ready for me when I arrived. How long was this desk empty before it was mine?
“Maybe she found a way out,” I said. “Maybe at recess.”
He looks at me for the first time. He looks at me strangely.
And I understand, there is no recess.
When I return to my desk, I search its surface for messages written in eraser that you can only see from an angle, for scratched initials. But the desk’s surface is impossibly smooth. I don’t even find my own fingerprints.
The weird thing is, the thing I can’t get over, is that I can’t hear them. The classroom above our classroom. I realize now that the thumps we heard from time to time, coming from beneath the floor, had nothing to do with us. I wonder if my old classmates are listening for me. I wonder if somewhere they have their ears pressed to tile, waiting for my voice to rise above the rest. I wonder if I’m in a room that no one else is above.
Melissa Goodrich received her MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. Her stories have previously appeared in Gigantic Sequins, PANK, Artful Dodge, The Kenyon Review Online, American Short Fiction, and others, and her first collection of stories is DAUGHTERS OF MONSTERS, published by Jellyfish Highway Press.
Dana Diehl earned her MFA in fiction at Arizona State University, where she served as editor of Hayden's Ferry Review. Her debut short story collection is forthcoming from Jellyfish Highway Press in Fall 2016. Dana lives and writes in Tucson.