Tarantula Hawk: A Play by Heather Hixie

January 17, 2009
The very first time I walked into a classroom and sat down on one of the cold, melamine chairs, I immediately regretted wearing a dress. I shot up very suddenly as the back of my legs came in contact with the slab of ice below me, which was thoughtfully curved inward in a futile attempt to make its prisoners comfortable.
The scene after that unfolded like a bad variety show, with the other students in the classroom looking on as the curious audience. My desk fell over in surprise as I flew into it, tumbling onto its side like a cow tipped over by a gang of teenage rednecks. My books slid off gracefully, one by one, like a group of synchronized swimmers making their graceful decent into the pool. Then, as if on cue, my teacher waltzed into the classroom on her tiptoes like a ballerina making her grand entrance on stage, spotlighted by the florescent lights above her.
“Ah-hah!” she sang out as she spotted me frantically trying to pick up my books from the floor. “You. Must be Heather.”

I had stumbled into Miss Felicity’s eighth grade creative writing class halfway through their unit on playwriting, with more emphasis on the play than the writing. Since West Gardner Middle was an understaffed school, Miss Felicity was not only the creative writing teacher for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades but also the set designer, choreographer, and songwriter for all of the school’s plays (this month it was a comedic version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, complete with eight or nine upbeat, toe-tapping, hip-popping musical numbers). She used her creative writing classes mainly as a way to seek out potential talent for her productions, extending the playwriting unit as long as the school possibly allowed.

“My dear!” Miss Felicity said to me, coming over to put her wrinkled hands on my newly flushed cheeks. “You have come into our dwelling at a fortunate time, for we are casting our minds deep into the haunted world of drama, something that—dare I say it?—should be right up your alley!”

She spoke in hushed, breathy tones, rushing through her sentences and deepening her voice on certain words, as if to accent their meaning.

“Now take your seats! And we shall begin!” she called out dramatically, though everyone was already seated with their hands folded eagerly on their desks. She lifted up her arms in greeting and the tiny beads at the ends of her shawl shook busily. “Today I have brought with me…note cards!”

This seemed to convey some other meaning to the rest of the students, who cheered happily and broke out into applause.

“Note cards?” I asked from my desk.

“Note cards!” Miss Felicity repeated spectacularly, eliciting more whooping from the other students.
It turned out that each of the ever-popular note-cards had three things written on them: the names of two characters, a conflict between the characters, and a setting. Two people at a time went up, picked a note card, and acted out the scene that they had selected.
I watched in disbelief as the students went up two at a time, most with little to no acting abilities, and joyfully acted out ridiculous scenarios. I witnessed two Dalmatians silently argue over who would be the mascot of the new fire station in town, a frog try to convince a ranidaphobic (which meant afraid of frogs, apparently) princess to kiss him, and a pregnant old lady whose husband was convinced that her baby was actually Jesus returning to the earth once more. After the last two students—one of whom had a sweatshirt shoved under her shirt as a makeshift baby bump—took their bows, Miss Felicity clapped her hands together and pointed them at me.
“Heather Hixie, my beautiful blonde pixie, it’s your turn. Go! Dazzle us with your talent!”
I sat at my desk with my arms crossed over my chest stubbornly, looking back at Miss Felicity with my eyebrows raised. She came closer and closer as she waited for me, looming over my desk like a tiger about to pounce on its prey. My bare legs began to shake in my brown leather cowboy boots. I felt the rest of the class staring at me anxiously but I refused to meet eyes with anyone: mine were locked on the dark green chalkboard in front of me.
“No,” I said finally, forcing myself to turn my head and look into her baggy brown eyes. She peered at me from above her glasses, tilting her head downward and raising her own, perfectly arched eyebrows back at me.
“No?” she asked in surprise, obviously taken aback. It seemed that nobody had ever refused her ridiculous note card exercise. “Why ever not?

“Because I took this class to write,” I said firmly. “Not to act. So give me something to write and I’ll write it.”

“You can write on your own time!” Miss Felicity said sternly, her voice suddenly no longer hushed and breathy. “You know, Heather, it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that a student like yourself, who comes from such a ridiculously gifted acting background, doesn’t want to act out a simple scenario in front of an eighth grade classroom! Now up! Up!”

Was this how school worked? Is this what my grades depended on?

“How about I act out a person who doesn’t wanna act out a scene?” I offered helpfully. The kids around me gasped and I looked around in surprise. Had I said something offensive? Judging by the look on Miss Felicity’s face, I had.

“How dare you smart-mouth me!” she said angrily, throwing her note cards down on her desk. “Who do you think you are? You think you can act like this in school? Is that what your daddy taught you?”

“I can act out a potato growing on a farm,” I said desperately, trying to calm her down. “Or a statue of someone? A lamp? A can of soda?”

“And now you’re mocking the note cards!” Miss Felicity said, her black, pipe-cleaner curls shaking wildly. “Nobody mocks the note cards!”

“No, I wasn’t! I—”

“You wanna write something? I’ll give you something to write! You’re responsible for writing out the next school play! Oh, yes. I want an original piece. Something creative, something fun, but something dramatic and scary! And I want to see the beginning of it tomorrow! Oh, yes, my dear! Tomorrow! Ten pages! Twelve-inch font! And twenty copies so that everyone in the class can read it!” She paused, turned her back to me swiftly, raised a single pointer finger in the air and added, “You’re welcome!”

About three years ago, when my dad had been filming a movie in South America, he got stung by a species of spider wasp called the tarantula hawk. Even though I had been over a hundred yards away, taking a spelling test my mother had written out for me, I had still heard my dad’s deep, piercing scream as the wasp’s brutal stinger cut through his skin. I had come running over right away, barefoot and sweaty. My dad was already being tended to by a medic on the film set. I had learned some colorful new words that day as he described the pain to my mother and me.

“Can you tell me what in the hell that was?” my dad had finally asked, examining the large red bump near his elbow in disgust. The medic, a Brazilian man with a pleasant Portuguese accent, smiled at us with a glint of wickedness in his eyes.

“Tarantula hawk wasp,” he had said. “One of the largest wasps in the world. And the most painful.”

“Why do they call it a tarantula hawk?” I had asked curiously, watching as the medic rubbed some kind of white cream on my dad’s elbow.

“Because they sting and paralyze tarantulas,” the medic had explained.

“Do they eat them?” I had asked in disgust.

“Worse. They lay an egg inside the spider’s body. When the larvae hatch…they slowly devour the spider from the inside out.”

“Does it die?”

“Not until much…much later.”

I made up my mind after getting home from school that day that I would write my play for Miss Felicity about an giant-sized tarantula hawk wasp that stomps around the world, leaving a path of destruction in its wake and planting its larvae in humans instead of spiders. She had said to write about something scary, and frankly, that was the scariest thing I could possibly think of. Shaking from disgust and excitement, I sat down at my desk and began writing, and my imagination took off.

In the second act, after the start of the initial destruction and terrorizing, I made my tarantula hawk disguise itself one of its victims:

(The clever tarantula hawk realizes that since the whole world is searching to destroy it: it is no longer safe in its current form. The tarantula hawk is shown cutting off the hair of its last victim with its hooked claws. The victim is lying on the ground, screaming as the tarantula’s larvae begin to hatch inside of her head and start to eat out her brains. The tarantula hawk makes itself a wig out of the woman’s black curls. It puts on the woman’s glasses. It puts on the woman’s shawl. It turns to the audience and puts its arms up in celebration).

In my third act, more and more tarantula hawk wasps begin to eat their way out of the humans they were implanted in as larvae. The new tarantula hawks become the loyal followers of the curly-haired hero. They follow its every move, abide by its every rule, listen to its every command:
MAIN TARANTULA HAWK: (breathlessly) My dears! Today each of you is required to tap dance before me as I search for my new sidekick! The best tap dancer will win the role as my most trusted advisor! Go! What are you waiting for? Tap dance before me!
TARANTULA FOLLOWERS: (robotically and in unison) We will do ask you ask, Great One! Your wish is our command!

I finished the entire play around one in the morning, writing not ten but twenty handwritten pages—front and back—before I fell asleep on top of my manuscript. It was a small price to pay for being the author of the next school play. They would probably put my name on the program, right on the front page: “Tarantula Hawk, a play by Heather Hixie.” When I woke up, the words “helpless victim” were stamped backwards on my face.

Miss Felicity was in a frenzy when she came into homeroom that morning, spitting and clucking like a chicken as she paced around frantically. Papers flew up in the air and pieces of chalk fell off their ledge as she hurried to her desk, muttering to herself.
“What am I gonna do?” she asked us, throwing up her arms in the air dramatically and knocking about a pound of glitter off of her pink sweater. The floor below her sparkled like a fresh snowfall. “The show must go on, the show must go on, and yet! And yet I am doomed! We’re all doomed!”
“What’s wrong, Miss Felicity?” The buck-toothed girl sitting next to me was looking at her in concern. “Is something wrong with the play?”
“Everything is wrong with the play, my child! Everything! Last night I got a call from Mrs. Campbell, the mother of the girl who plays Ophelia. It turns out that the silly girl has laryngitis!”
“Oh, no!” Cries of disappointment carried throughout the classroom.
“Overworked, her mother said! Too much singing, too much rehearsing! It’s all nonsense, all of it! If only she knew how much we rehearsed when I was the lead in Chicago at the Topeka Star Theater! We were lucky if we were allowed to sleep!”
“Is the girl taking a few days off from rehearsals?” a boy in the back of the classroom asked.
“Worse!” Miss Felicity cried in outrage. “She’s dropping out of the play! Her mother won’t let her do it anymore!”
Someone in the classroom actually screamed in horror. All around me, people had their hands over their hands in shock, gasping and crying out as they took in the news.
“Yes, my dears. And her understudy is completely useless, we only cast her because her mother is helping out with the costumes. Utterly silly girl, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. So now we only have three weeks to find a new Ophelia!”
Then Miss Felicity looked around at us, swiftly scanning the classroom until a smile formed on her pruned red lips.
“So.” She clapped her hands together once and bowed her head. “I’ll have to hold auditions anywhere and everywhere. Starting with here and now.”
Then Miss Felicity had each one of the girls in class stand up on their chairs, one at a time, and sing a few lines from a piece that she had written just for the play, entitled “Nunneries are for Prudes.” She stopped most of the girls quickly, shaking her head solemnly at their high-pitched, out-of-tune attempts. The boys in the classroom snickered gleefully at each of the girls until their faces were red from trying to hold in laughter. They got the most entertainment from the girls wearing skirts, who desperately tried to cover themselves up as they stood on their chairs and sang. When Miss Felicity got to my desk, her expression hardened.
“Ah, Heather. Heather, Heather, Heather. I assume you won’t turn me down two days in a row. It’s your turn, now.”
But I had made up my mind from the beginning of the exercise.
“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. This time the class was expecting it, but the room still filled with exasperated sighs and groans.
“No again?” Miss Felicity asked, trying to maintain the calm in her voice. “I have to admit, this is getting a bit ridiculous. I was counting on you as a potential Ophelia. That blonde hair, those blue eyes—you’re a shoe-in for the role!”
“Yeah, except I can’t sing,” I said.
“Smart-mouthing me again, eh?” Miss Felicity cried angrily. “I guess those ten pages of work last night didn’t teach you? That reminds me…where are those ten pages of work?”
Smiling, I picked up the thick pile I had placed near me on the floor and placed it on my desk with a thud. Miss Felicity stepped back, surprised.
“I wrote twenty,” I said smugly. “And there’s enough copies to go around.”

After gym, algebra, and lunch, I had to go back to Miss Felicity for an hour of creative writing. She was sitting at her desk when we filed into the classroom, holding a copy of what I recognized to be my manuscript. My heart fluttered excitedly inside my chest as I took a seat right in front of her, grinning happily, knowing that I was about to be praised for my work.
“Class,” Miss Felicity said, standing up and holding my manuscript for everyone to see. “As you know, this play was written as a private assignment for our very own Heather Hixie.”
My smile grew wider as she said my name, and I pictured it once more on the cover of the program: “Our very own Heather Hixie.”
“I would like each of you now to get out your own copy of the play that Heather handed out to this morning.”
There was a general shuffling around the classroom as the boys and girls pulled my play out of their desks, folders and backpacks. I grasped the edges of my desk in delight: this was it, I couldn’t believe it! Miss Felicity was going to start casting people for my play already! I imagined the class reading and acting out my play as Miss Felicity handpicked students to be in the production.
“Now, I got a chance to read this play during my free period this morning,” Miss Felicity said. “And I can only say that…” She paused for effect, looking around the classroom dramatically. “This was the most vulgar, disgusting, and insulting piece that I have ever read in my life.”
My mouth dropped open in awe. The classroom around me buzzed with a new spark of interest, and every pair of eyes fell on me once again. I stared into the cold, merciless face of Miss Felicity and suddenly felt very small. She was glowering down at me angrily, almost foaming at the mouth. In my anger and sudden hatred for her, I noticed the smallest imperfections on her face: the tiny black hairs growing above her lip, the raised mole on the tip of her nose, the chip on one of her front teeth, the difference in the sizes of her two eyes, and the five deep wrinkles on her forehead.

“Heather, I am personally offended by this piece. Never in my fifteen years teaching at this school…never in my life…have I ever been so insulted and ridiculed by a single student. How dare you!”
“I wasn’t trying to insult anybody!” I said defensively. “I was just writing what came into my mind!”
“You make a mockery out of me, out of my classroom, out of my students!” Miss Felicity continued. “You portray the innocent boys and girls around you as an army full of robotic, brainless monsters! And you portray me—not only your teacher but a prominent figure at this institution—as a giant, crude, blood-sucking monster!”

“Tarantula hawks don’t suck blood,” I said quietly. “They plant their larvae in—“

“QUIET!” Miss Felicity bellowed. She was shaking from head to toe, holding my play with two fingers like it was a disgusting old diaper. “Now, I have never done this before in my life to a student’s work, but there’s a first time for everything. You have crossed the line, Heather.”

Then she grasped my play with both hands, held it out directly in front of her, and ripped it apart in a single, fluid motion. The sound of the ripping paper was magnified in the silent classroom and seemed to last even after the torn manuscript fluttered to the ground. I made a small, helpless sound and then closed my mouth, trying to fight back the tears that I knew were about to start flowing down from my eyes.

“Now I want you all to do the same!” Miss Felicity said to the astonished classroom. “Heather needs to know that this kind of mockery won’t be rewarded.”

Like an army full of obedient tarantula hawks following their master, the boys and girls in Miss Felicity’s eighth grade creative writing classroom each took my manuscript and tore it apart. Each “shhh” sound of ripping paper caused more and more tears form in my eyes until they flowed freely down my face, leaving heavy black streaks of mascara in their wake.

When Miss Felicity told the principal about my play, he agreed with her decision to give me three weeks of after-school detention in the form of play rehearsals. I would be cast as Ophelia in Hamlet, and I finally got my wish of having my name written on the front of the program, with one small alteration. Under “Hamlet: The Musical,” my name was written in loopy, cursive letters: “Heather Hixie, daughter of the legendary Robert Hixie, in her breakout performance as Ophelia.” My singing voice would be replaced by Miss Felicity herself, who agreed to stand behind the curtains with a microphone as I lip-synced the words to her songs.

On the morning of opening night, I walked to homeroom with a heavy heart, carrying with me the script to “Hamlet: The Musical” under my arm. As I walked into the classroom, I noticed that the other kids around me were dressed quite peculiarly. Was this a strange tradition that they had before the opening night of a play? All around me people were wearing matching plastic antennas, big black sunglasses and makeshift wings: they ranged from large white angel wings to spiky batman wings. Then, as I looked closer, I saw that most of them also had a big silver stinger made out of aluminum foil tied onto their rear end. As the students all noticed me, the classroom fell silent. Then buck-toothed girl who usually sits next to me said, loudly and clearly, “Tarantula Hawk! A play by Heather Hixie! Act one, scene one!”

And all around me the students took position. Some acted as the innocent human victims who would soon be paralyzed and some hid under the desks, waiting for their cues. One large, beefy boy with menacing black demon wings jumped up on one of the desks, raising his arms in triumph, and shouting, “Beware, human creatures! I, the tarantula hawk wasp, have come into your dwelling to plant my larvae within you! When it hatches, you will be eaten alive slowly from the inside out! All of you will soon be under the control of my obedient army of followers!”

And then Miss Felicity’s eighth grade creative writing class proceeded to act out my entire play, scene by scene, even when Miss Felicity herself walked in during the second act and tried to stop them, even when the beefy boy put on a black curly wig and Miss Felicity ran out of the classroom screaming, even when Miss Felicity came back in the third act with the school principal, who fell down laughing at the appearance of the students, and even when the bell rang to signal the beginning of the next class. As I sat there in awe, watching my play come to life, I was more comfortable than I had ever been in that classroom, even as the cold of the melamine chair seeped through the thin fabric of my khaki jeans.
I didn’t mind the cold at that moment: I already had goosebumps anyway.

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