When Mr. Pennant finished going over the class rules, he told us, “You guys are in fourth grade now. You’re all eight or nine years old. In previous times that’d be a large chunk of your lives on earth.”
He made a face at this, eyes big and corners of his mouth drawn down, to indicate something like ”Impressive.” We’d all gotten to know Mr. Pennant a little bit in previous years—he lead our daily assemblies—and were excited to be in his class. Older siblings told us he was fun.
“Nine years would be about one-quarter of your life. By the way, are you guys ready for fractions?” He smiled wide and jumped his eyebrows up and down. We laughed.
“In a previous age, most of you wouldn’t even be here. Not just at a decent private school. I mean alive. Most of you would be dead. You, Chris, you’d never have made it. Tiffany, there’s just no way. Life was hard and brutish and short and usually ended in your early childhood. Making it this far would have been an accomplishment.
“Your parents would have buried you. You’d be underground, still and silent, eyes closed, full of worms. And that is exactly where you’re headed. I just heard myself say that, and it sounds like a threat. It shouldn’t sound like a threat. I don’t mean it to sound that way at all. I’m headed the same way. You’re born, life is a struggle, and you die. We suffer our days away and then die, go back to the earth. Your bodies aren’t even at the height of their powers yet, but they’re still just looking for opportunities to fail you. Especially you, Chris.”
He went to the front of the classroom and wrote on the board.
“As for man, his days are as grass.
As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone,
and the place thereof shall know it no more.”
He wrote it and spoke it in that weird staccato pace your voice does to match your hand, like it’s running alongside of a horse.
“That’s the bible. Not only do you die, you will be forgotten. Put your hand on your heart. Not for the pledge of allegiance. I want you to feel your heart. 100,800 beats per day. Now think about your heart beating. All it has to do is stop. Why is it beating anyway? You don’t control it. You can’t talk it into continuing to beat. If it stops, it just stops. If you learn one thing this year, I want you to learn that. Death is a wave and it is rolling toward you even now. I want you to learn that. But you know what?”
He held one finger up. He smiled.
“Now it’s story time.”
We had a substitute the next day, and for the next two weeks, and then we had Ms. Cressler for the rest of the year.