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The Snail Race
A short story by Harvey Sutlive

I was lucky. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department was hiring staff biologists for a new marine habitat program the year I finished graduate school. I got a job and moved to the Pacific coast, to Newport.

Our high school biology teacher, Father Glaspar, died the first year I was away in Oregon. My brother sent me a newspaper clipping. There was a little tribute, written by a former student – an Oceanography Club kid. This particular guy went through Hennessy a few years before me, so I didn’t know him

Hennessy was an all-boys, Catholic, southern, military school. It was basically focused on discipline not learning. The priests were fairly clear about that. And most parents were OK with that approach. I was a senior at Hennessy the year Father Glaspar had his first heart attack. He taught for a while after that, but he kept having heart attacks. Eventually the school sent him to New York, upstate, where he came from, and he died up there.

The salt water marshes all around Cassina amazed and excited Father Glaspar. He didn’t care about teaching. He loved to explore sloughs and mudflats and tidal creeks. He loved to scoop up stuff and carry it back to his lab. He considered himself an oceanographer not a teacher.

You could barely squeeze into his biology class. The desks were crowded against the door and the blackboard to make more space in the lab area in back for Father Glaspar’s collections. Sometimes he came to the blackboard and gave a lesson, but that put him in a bad mood. Then you had to watch out. You had to be alert to his moods. Usually he stayed in the lab area and worked on his collections. He wrote lists of his stuff in tiny writing on long yellow pads.

It always smelled terrible in the back of the room. The lab counters were covered with racks of dead saltwater plants and animals. They dripped seawater and mud and rottenness. Father Glaspar kept tennis balls floating in a pan of nasty stale oceanwater and dead shellfish. If he saw somebody talking or moving without permission in the crowded front part of the class, he snatched up a tennis ball and flung it at the back of the offending kid. He wasn’t a physically coordinated person and when he flung one of those tennis balls he nearly fell off his stool. Anybody in the mass of packed-together desks might get bonked, and then they smelled like shit for the rest of the day.

Most of the time Father Glaspar put an Oceanography Club kid in charge of the class. That kid would review homework from the night before. That kid was often actually interested in the homework.

Or he would have an Oceanography Club kid set up a filmstrip. An average uninterested kid, picked at random, usually read the captions under the images in the filmstrips. Father Glaspar didn’t know names, so he would just point. These strips might be about biology, or they might be about something else. It depended on what the school librarian gave him that week.

Your grade came straight from weekly test scores. The tests were always the same – forty tricky multiple choice questions on smelly mimeograph paper. Almost everybody failed these tests. Then he sold a retest two days later at fifty cents per person.

Before the retest, an Oceanography Club kid went over the material and gave the correct answers, question by question. Then the next day you took the retest. If you paid the fifty cents. Weekly tests were a major fundraiser for the Oceanography Club. You could memorize most of the answers the night before without too much trouble. You could usually remember enough to get a B or a C without even memorizing. Some kids, the ones who weren’t good memorizers, made cheat sheets. But that was taking a chance on getting a beating.

If Father Glaspar asked for a filmstrip reader, no one volunteered. Reading filmstrips didn’t count for extra credit. You only got extra credit if you helped the Oceanography Club. You could sand down the crab boat, or scrub shells, or clean the lab after class. Father Glaspar had a junky old crab boat that he used for Oceanography Club projects – it always needed maintenance. The crab boat was a regular fountain of extra credit, especially for kids who weren’t good memorizers.

In our class, when Father Glaspar asked for a filmstrip reader, we always hissed "Pontano Pontano Pontano." Allen Pontano was a terrible reader. He read too fast, or too slow, or misread words, or skipped them altogether.

Allen feared reading aloud, and he hated us when we chanted "Pontano-Pontano-Pontano." It was fun for us when Allen read because of all the mistakes he made. Once the librarian sent us a strip about the human body. Allen tried to read that day, and when he came to a part about the pubic area, he screwed up, and he said the public area.

We made a lot of noise about that and Father Glaspar shot straight out from one of the closets in the back of the class. He was a violent guy and he would have slugged Pontano, or the filmstrip operator – when Pontano was reading, the filmstrip operator sometimes shook the projector to make the words blur, or waved it around, so the caption swept back and forth across the front of the dark classroom. Pontano would desperately try to follow the image and keep on reading the words. Or, Father Glaspar might have started pounding the nearest handy kid. But several people shouted out what happened. He thought it was funny too, so he didn’t hit anybody.

There were nine shiny glass jars on a shelf in one of Father Glaspar’s closets – there was a human fetus floating in formaldehyde inside each jar. There was one jar for each month of development. When we did evolution or human biology Father Glaspar would apply this serious look to his face and bring out the jars and pass them around the class.

The guy closest to the front door got the one month jar (it was a smaller jar with a strip of dirty masking tape on the side – "one month" was written on the tape in pencil.) You could barely see anything in that jar. The first guy would take a look, then pass it to the guy behind him. After jar number one was on its way Father Glaspar would release jar number two, and so on, until all the jars were out there in the mass of desks in the front of the classroom.

The final jars were heavy and big and the contents looked like… what they were… human babies floating in clear liquid. Especially the nine month jar. I remember the features of the kid in the nine month jar. I would recognize that kid if I saw it in a hospital maternity ward, or in a mother’s arms.

These were kids who had been born dead to welfare mothers. A doctor Father Glaspar knew at the city hospital gave them to him.

We looked at the babies a couple of times over the course of a class year. The smooth gallon jars passed hand to hand, up and down the desk rows. Catching the light. Cold and heavy jars and a little slippery. The compact bodies in the jars moving in the sloshing liquid.

We used to talk about dropping a jar, on purpose, but nobody ever had the nerve to do that. You had Father Glaspar twice over four years – once for Earth Science, and once for Biology. So you saw the jars three or four times all together – that was the typical experience.

Father Glaspar was a goofy, violent guy with a voice like a slide whistle when he got angry – the tones of his voice went up and down – "Whoa Mister Harrison! What’s that in your hand!" Unfortunately for Mr. Harrison, it was a cheat sheet. Anthony Harrison wasn’t a good memorizer. That meant five whacks with the Meter Beater for Mr. Harrison. The Meter Beater was a thick metric yardstick and you got cracked in the head or across the arms with it.

For Christmas the year I was a junior Father Glaspar’s sister sent him a new lab incubator – a heavy brown metal insulated box. He showed it off to our class after we got back from the holidays. Nobody was interested except him.

In the next few days, somebody wrote Fuck You Father Glaspar on the inside of the incubator door. Father Glaspar decided to blame the whole class.

He got out his Atom Smasher, which was a chunk of Styrofoam floating-dock material in the shape of a sledgehammer head. It was mounted on a mop handle. He made us sit still at our desks, and he climbed up and down the crowded aisles in front of the class and pounded us each one on the top of the head.

Several guys cried – they weren’t holding themselves properly. The trick when you got hit with the Atom Smasher was to keep your chin tucked into your chest. The force traveled down your spine and pushed your butt into the desk seat. If you didn’t hold yourself properly your neck would be hurt.

It took Father Glaspar a few days to get over the lab/incubator episode. The assistant principal even came and talked to our class. A couple of kids had to go to the doctor for their necks – their parents complained.

The hallways at Hennessey were lined with lockers. Above and below the lockers, the walls were made of glass. You could see into the classrooms, sort of, if you stood on tiptoe and looked over the lockers, or if you stooped really low.

None of the classrooms had windows to the outside. There was only the one visual outlet to the hallway. In front of the room, past the teacher, you could watch the tops of people’s heads and their ankles and feet going up and down the hallways. Kids in the hallways during classtime raised their hands or stooped low and make obscene gestures for their classmates’ amusement.

Sometimes teachers taped test grades or assignments to the glass, face out, so you could get information without actually going in the classroom.

Father Glaspar was on the marsh with the Oceanography Club a few weeks after Christmas, after the incubator incident. He came back with a big shallow cardboard box full of mud and miscellaneous marsh plants. He put the box on a shelf in front of class, against the hallway wall glass. He was out of room in back in the lab area.

Chances are the box would have sat there indefinitely, and the plants would have died and rotted, but there happened to be some tiny snails in the marsh mud, and after they warmed up a little in the heated classroom, they started crawling up the glass over the lockers. They were going up the glass very slowly, two or three inches a day. They were leaving little slimy trails behind on the glass, so you could track them. It was interesting.

An Oceanography Club kid showed Father Glaspar what was happening. He thought it was exciting. I guess he was looking for some little way to make a gesture of conciliation after the incubator disaster. He taped a bar graph to the glass next to the snails. The bar graph faced the hallway, and it had names for all the snails.

Each day he corrected the graph to show the progress the snails were making. He put little name tags on the glass beside each snail. Everybody was interested. The whole school at one time or another came by to check it out. Father Glaspar made bets with some of the Oceanography Club kids on which snail was going to get to the top of the glass first. Even some ordinary kids made bets. The assistant principal even came by and made a bet.

That went on for three or four days, then somebody put drops of hydrochloric acid on the snails, one drop per snail, and killed them. A couple of snails fell off the glass or were washed off by the acid, but most of them stopped in place and died. Everybody said the kid that did it must have been an Oceanography Club kid. Only those kids knew where stuff like hydrochloric acid was stored. Whoever did it left the bottle of acid sitting beside the window so Father Glaspar would be sure to get the idea.

Word got around, and the whole school came by for a good look through the glass at the dead snails. Father Glaspar didn’t notice anything until the following morning, first period, when he adjusted the bar graph for the day.

I didn’t have him first period, but they said he was really shocked when he figured out what happened. Especially when he saw the bottle of acid. He went into a little frenzy of wiping down the window glass and pulling down the bar graph and the little stickers. He picked up the box full of plants and mud and took it to the back of the hallway and threw it in the bushes near where he parked the crab boat. After everything was cleaned up he did a big anger display for that particular class. He did a similar anger display for every one of his four or five classes that day.

That snail race, in the way it unfolded and the way it ended, deeply satisfied the student body. The rest of our junior year played out. Father Glaspar burned out on the Oceanography Club. The lab area in back of his class got cleaner and cleaner. He stopped giving retests.

That summer his sister sent him a ham radio outfit. When class started again it was installed in one of his lab closets. He would close the closet door and get into that.

Father Glaspar was much easier to deal with after he got the ham radio. He radioed people all over the world, and they sent him postcards, and he taped the postcards to his closet door. In fact he had his first heart attack right there in the closet, during a class. Some kids pulled him out after they realized what was happening. They couldn’t operate the radio to call for help, but somebody ran to the office – the assistant principal called an ambulance right away.

Copyright © Harvey Sutlive 2003

Harvey Sutlive lives in a rural area outside Athens Georgia USA and has had stories in Slate Magazine UK, Offcourse Magazine, Double Dare Magazine, and Prism International.

This short story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Snail Race is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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