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A Free Salmon
There I sat, my palms oozing sweaty fear, and my legs crossed tightly into a pretzel. His grizzly bear eyes leapt at me from across his hickory desk, and soon his harsh stare had me under his control. I shivered in the icy vision of his eyes, and I could not stare back. Then the bear began to roar:
“So Mark, what do you think your punishment should be this time?”
I tried to avoid the power of his gaze. My eyes dashed to his pale yellow tie and then to his desk. On the desk sat a nameplate, which read: “Mr. Baier, Principal.” My eyes moved to his walls adorned with picture frames, but in every frame Mr. Baier reflected back at me with his chubby neck and balding scalp.
The bear stuck his paw into my file and pulled out a crumpled yellow slip of paper. It was the list. My list. My punishment list. It had entries like: “Clean the library” or “No recess for a week.” So it went all the way down the page.
“Well Mark, at this point I’ve exhausted every punishment our school has to offer on you,” Mr. Baier growled. “I can’t even think of what I could do next.”
I stared blankly at the floor.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you what to do anymore, Mark,” Mr. Baier snarled. “At some point you’ll have to do something for yourself.”
Mr. Baier threw up his paws in disgust. But I had no words. I had no power. I had no will, no conviction, no agency. I could only stare back and wait for him to tell me how to behave. I could not behave for myself.
He inched his face closer to mine, and a stinky wave of breath flushed through my nostrils. I could not stop the unwelcome smell from barging into my nose. Trying to distract myself, I looked around the room, and every picture of Mr. Baier stared back. Ten sets of eyes, ten smiling snouts.
His unwelcome breath began to waft out of every mouth of every picture. Mr. Baier holding a four-foot long salmon. Mr. Baier with his son picking apples. Mr. Baier eating a huge steak. Old fish, rotten apples, raw meat. Old fish, rotten apples, raw meat. The scents were unavoidable, inescapable. They swirled up into my nose and through my brain. They began to fill the room and swirl together, forming a tornado that lifted me up and away. It carried me off, and I could do nothing to stop it. I had no power.
The tornado threw me into a small plastic chair at a low wooden table. I looked at a calendar at the side of the room. It was three months before. I scanned the room to see thousands upon thousands of shelves, each with a larger amount of books.
I was in the school library. The exact place. Three months before. The exact date. I knew what was going to happen. I had no power to stop it.
My muddy blue jeans slid from side to side in my seat, and my chin rested in my hands like an owl in its perch. I buried my face in my arms and shut my eyes. I began to doze off, dreaming of a Cajun salmon dinner I had eaten the night before. Salt, spice, and lemon juice filled my taste buds, as I re-chewed every bite of last night’s salmon.
That salmon had lived a simple life, not to be told what to do and never given specific responsibilities. Other than its own will to survive, its silvery, gleaming body was free to swim as it wished in the vast ocean. No consequences. But perhaps I had it all wrong. Perhaps in every group of salmon, there was a leader of the pack, ordering the other fish around. They could either be one or the other. Powerful or powerless. Leader or follower.
A furious yell shattered my fishy dream into thousands of pieces scattered atop the dusty carpet of the library.
“Mark! Mark! Wake up!” the crackly voice of a witch screamed into my ear. A wrinkly face with a sharp, pointed nose stared me in the eyes. Her dry yellow straw hair was tangled into many knots. “Get up and do something. Pick out a book and read it!” the librarian ordered.
“Do you have any books on salmon?” I asked the librarian. She began to waddle back toward me. Her nostrils began to flare and her skin began to tint green.
“Do you think you’re funny?” she cackled. In silent whispers she began to cast a spell on me, forcing my body into an uncontrollable shiver. Her cold hands grazed my shaky arm. “Quit being so stupid,” she sneered.
And so the event was replaying itself exactly as before. I knew what was coming next, my angry retribution. And I had no will to avoid it.
I pulled myself out of the plastic chair, turned around, and began to edge out the door of the library. I was not going to say anything; I was going to change the past. But then, suddenly, the tornado of terrible scents appeared from nowhere. It whipped up my shoulder-length reddish-brown hair and whirled me around to face the librarian. Her back was turned. The tornado was blowing papers off of desks and books off of shelves. Kids were pushed against the walls, but her back was still turned.
With a spiteful grin, the tornado stretched out my middle finger to reveal to her the dirty digit with its uncut nail. In the next second, the tornado had flipped the librarian around. My trembling finger stared her right in the eyes. Her cold, misty gaze locked with mine. I tried to relax my finger, but it would not move. I was powerless.
And then the tornado engulfed me once more. I began to whirl around and around. The books from the shelves began to swirl with the tornado, and my feet could not feel the tough carpeting of the library anymore. I was floating in an abyss, in nothing, just swirling yellow light.
It did not last long, and I was promptly pushed into a padded kitchen chair. The light was dim, and I looked up to see the molten faces of my parents. Their features were gone, all except for disappointed eyes that stared at me fixedly.
“Marky, you need to take control. Think before you act,” my tired mother began to order. “I don’t want to get called by Mr. Baier while I’m attending to a patient again.”
“Sorry,” I replied without knowing what it really meant.
“Mr. Baier tells me you are to clean the library during recess and lunch this whole week. Hopefully, that will teach you responsibility. The next time you think of flipping off your teacher, think first. You have the power to do the right thing.”
I shook my head no, I had no power, but my mother’s eyes had melted into her face and she could not see. The tornado warped around me again, and with the table china swirling, I was swept out of the room.
I landed next to my bicycle in the crowded bike cage of my school. I looked at my watch. Two months before at the site of another misdeed. My favorite green hat was sitting safely on my head, with its emblem of “DC” emblazoned on its front and its dark green color now faded to a light vomit after months of heavy use. The hat clutched my head in its grasp, and I felt its pressure around the crown of my skull.
Kids squirmed in as the cage began to fill. My black tennis shoes dragged in the dirt as I struggled to inch by. After a few moments spent pushed against the cold metal of the chain-linked fence, I was out.
As I began to walk freely on the cement, I stopped. I knew what came next. A cold breeze began to blow, and my hat sneaked off of my head, fully aware of what that would provoke. The hat blew into the hands of a snickering curly-haired kid — several inches too tall with freckles that contrasted with his milky skin. My hat had left me. He had it.
My jaw clenched, and my eyes widened. My nostrils flared and began to breathe in air from my huffing mouth, laced with the scent of the applesauce I had eaten earlier.
The boy began to run, and soon, just like last time, he had dumped my treasured possession into the nearby trashcan. Laughing and laughing, he flapped his chubby cheeks with their sharp dimples, and his eyes twinkled like needles in the sunlight. His cheer stung like a bee. I began to turn away, but the tornado came out of the ground and enveloped me, propelling me to my prey. It threw off my backpack and slammed down my bicycle.
The tornado raised my fists and furiously plunged them into his face, denting his soft skin and tossing his curly hair. He raised his dirty, clenched fists, and his hair stuck straight up like an animal in a cartoon. The tornado had pulled us together, and we were stuck in a showdown in the windy walls of the whirling storm.
But once again, I was torn away from the scene of my misdeed. The cloudy skies and dusty playground disintegrated from my vision. I was plopped right back down in that kitchen chair again, staring at my parents’ tired eyes — the only remaining feature on their blank faces. This time my father spoke.
“Marky, you don’t have to misbehave. You don’t have to punch kids out,” he said with an air of gloom. “You have the power to learn from your actions. Mr. Baier said you’re not to have recess for the week, but hopefully you get the message. You have control.”
Once again, I opened my mouth to disagree, but the tornado lifted me up and out of my padded kitchen seat as my parents turned into wisps of nothing.
I was plunged into a plastic blue school chair. It was a pointy boulder sharply plunging into my body. I could not bear to sit on that rock for much longer, but it pinned me down. I looked at the wall of the classroom; it was one month before.
I gazed out the window to look up at the cloudy skies. Puddles were scattered across the cement of the playground, begging me to jump in them.
“Brriing!” sang the bell that freed us from boring talks and tedious exercises. But it was soon answered by a contrasting voice. Over the loudspeaker came the harsh rasps of Mr. Baier.
“Attention students. We will be eating lunch indoors because the tables are wet,” he said. Relief pulsed through me because after lunch, I still had the opportunity to go outdoors. Unless this was like last time.
I began to unpack my lunch. It was cold steak — nearly raw. I poked it with my plastic fork, and it bounced like rubber. Eyeing it with disgust, I decided not to eat. I just wanted to go outside.
But then the rough growl roared over the loudspeaker again, “Attention students. It is too wet. We will not be going outside for all of lunch.”
His words sent a shiver down my spine. The rocky chair grabbed at my back; it was going to hold me for the next three hours. No breaks. Just like before.
The smelly tornado began to run circles around the room. I could not hold it in. I shook my head furiously and sprang up off the rock of my chair. The tornado came raging out of my throat and opened my jaw wide.
“Screw you!” The words came flying out of my mouth without me having to say them. My teacher abruptly turned her attention away from her email. She gave me a cold stare, and it held my eyes transfixed. The tornado lifted me away, and my teacher’s icy eyes vanished.
I was tossed right back down in that office chair. The wild wind of the tornado moved my gaze right back into Mr. Baier’s grizzly bear eyes.
The tornado was shuffling everything in the room. The papers, the pictures, the endless office supplies, all swirled in the storm of the tornado. But Mr. Baier’s pudgy form did not move. He remained in place, staring at me. Finally he spoke.
“Mark, you need to take responsibility.”
“Responsibility?” I thought to myself. “I have no power. No power. No power.”
“We’ve tried everything on you Mark, and I don’t know how we can make you learn anymore.”
“No will. No will. No will,” I thought.
“You continue and continue to cause trouble. It will not matter if I take away your recess or if I make you write a hundred lines.”
“I have no words. No words,” I thought as I squirmed in my chair and the tornado continued to tear apart Mr. Baier’s office.
“You will never cease to cause trouble. Since I don’t know how to punish you, I think it is best that you leave the school, Mark,” Mr. Baier said as he pointed to the door.
At that moment, the long salmon popped out of Mr. Baier’s picture frame, torn by the force of the tornado. Swirling in the winds of the storm, it began to swim against the current — by itself a powerful force of shiny determination.
“Wait,” I said. My mind had begun to clear. Against the force of the tornado, I opened my throat, and the words came out by my own force.
“I know how to punish myself.”
I grabbed a pen from the air around Mr. Baier’s desk and dragged the yellow slip of punishments toward my body. With my own hands, I wrote my punishment on the last line of the slip: my final punishment. The one I had the power to give to myself.
As I pushed the slip back over to Mr. Baier’s end of the desk, the tornado vanished, and all the objects in his office returned to their proper place.