May 4, 2017

“Ambition” by Michael Colonnese

“Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”

— Shakespeare

Marty McGrath, Leo Fisher’s 10th grade English teacher, was clearly upset when the boy refused to read Julius Caesar aloud in Special Ed. Instead, Leo sat in the back of McGrath’s classroom, surrounded by a pile of musty-smelling  philosophy texts and short-story collections, discards from the public library, while the only other three students able to read at all were expected to soldier on–with or without Leo’s participation. There was Ruby Toomer, a Downs-Syndrome black girl who liked to listen to top forty and play patty-cake, and whose stepfather had removed her front teeth with a pair of pliers to improve the quality of her blowjobs. There was Lucy Fernandez, potentially bilingual and one of the so-called “dreamers” but who had to be watched carefully for any signs of emotional stress that might signal the onset of debilitating seizures, and there was Leo’s best buddy, Tommy Albright, who had a heart defect and webbed fingers. Tommy probably didn’t belong in Special Ed classes either but was unusually compliant and agreeable.

The rest of the Special Ed students were simply hopeless, slack-jawed, pimply faced, and indistinguishable in their hopelessness except that some of them smelled fecal, wore diapers, and sat in wheelchairs. Once Leo had demonstrated that he could already read and write, most of his teachers had decided to leave well enough alone, but when McGrath dared imagine that a student attracted to old books might possibly be interested in Shakespeare, Leo had responded with a vacant stare. It was the boy’s deliberate indifference that galled. It was bad enough that his other students were droolers–as nearly everyone in administration secretly called them–but to have a Special Ed kid who showed real ability but wouldn’t perform, well, that rankled. McGrath had tried explaining to Leo that, even if he stuck things out for the full four years, a Special Ed certificate wasn’t nearly as valuable as a diploma, but the boy seemed determined to quit attending high-school as soon as he turned sixteen so insisted that it didn’t matter where test scores had misplaced him.

If McGrath had been a novice instructor, he would likely have taken Leo’s pending decision to become a dropout personally; the soon-to-be-wasted human potential might have driven him out of teaching, but McGrath was a twenty-five-year veteran. He had a state pension waiting if he decided to retire, and it was entirely by choice that he taught a class of droolers. He had seniority, and if he’d wanted to pull rank, he could have taught nothing but Advanced Placement classes or Gifted and Talented. Instead, every year he elected to teach a section of Special Ed–primarily as an example for the younger instructors but also to prove he could still survive in the trenches.

“That goddamn kid doesn’t want to be saved,” McGrath announced to those gathered in the shabby faculty lounge during lunch break. Nearly a dozen teachers were occupying mismatched couches and arm chairs, and a few more huddled around a splattered and grungy microwave, where a Lean-Cuisine entrée revolved. None them even bothered to nod. Instead, they looked down at the threadbare carpet or out through latticed-steel windows at the steel gray sky that hung like a pall over downtown Detroit. It was March 15th, nearly Spring, but winter wasn’t over yet, and expressing anger about an untenable situation wasn’t helpful. Besides, nearly all of them of them had experienced their own frustrating interactions with Leo Fisher, or else had heard McGrath complain bitterly about the boy before, so already knew exactly which goddamn kid he meant.

“So screw Leo Fisher,” said Martha Lemmings. “Save the ones you can.” As the only guidance counselor at Warren Harding High, where nine of every ten students received free or reduced-cost lunches, Mrs. Lemmings was singlehandedly responsible for arranging twelve-hundred student schedules, for encouraging college applications from a handful of optimistic over-achievers who imagined they had futures but also for meeting with the parents or guardians of students who gotten pregnant or into fist fights or else had been caught carrying knives, drugs, or handguns and faced mandatory expulsion.

Martha had known McGrath for fifteen years, and they’d once had a brief sexual fling, a one night’s stand, which both subsequently blamed on hard apple cider consumed at a faculty Christmas party, but that was many years ago. Martha had since married a muscular gym teacher named Lemmings, who fortunately no longer worked at the same school. McGrath and his wife, Margie, had been invited to their wedding, but he’d felt awkward, claimed he’d had previous engagement, sent a small gift, but didn’t attend. Nowadays, McGrath’s sex life was non-existent. Two years ago, his wife, Margie, had suffered a debilitating stroke and needed private nursing care when he was away at work.

“I wonder what his home life  is like,” McGrath muttered. He was he was no longer speaking to Mrs. Lemmings so much as to himself, and was taken back when she responded with something like compassion.

“It’s often better not to pry.”

“You’re his guidance councilor,” McGrath said, “Isn’t that your job?” If he couldn’t get a response from Leo, he could always guilt-trip Mrs. Lemmings.

“If you had to listen to half the twisted stories I vet on daily basis, you’d appreciate the students who fail to communicate.”

“I simply expected him to read a few lines from Julius Caesar,” McGrath said.

“Beware the ides of March,” said Mrs. Lemming, “Isn’t that in there somewhere?”

McGrath shrugged. “No doubt,” he said, but excusing himself before the period bell, he headed for an empty student lavatory, where while studying himself in the unbreakable steel mirror that hung above the sink, he wept as he washed his hands.


©2017 Michael Colonnese

Michael Colonnese lives in Fayetteville, NC where he directs the Creative Writing Program at Methodist University and works as the Managing Editor of Longleaf Press. His fiction and poetry books are available on  His latest is a poetry collection entitled Double Feature. 

Check out this story in our anthology: The First Annual Two Sisters Writing & Publishing Featuring International Writers by clicking here.

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