Falling Through the Cracks
By Shivani Shah
This short story is supposed to represent a phenomenon I see every day—kids falling through the cracks in public school.
Muddy boots file into Mr. Sterr’s eleventh grade math class, each lining the floor with their own chevron pattern. Whispers of the latest homecoming game and candy grams fill the classroom while he clears the blackboard with a damp rag. Mr. Sterr tries his best to create an environment conducive to teamwork and learning. As he writes “test next Thursday,” groans pour out of students, even though another bad test grade won’t impact their already failing grades.
Trees surround the school and light honking can be heard from the distant highway. Dampness seeps through the walls of the math class. Mold outlines the intersection of the wall and the floor. Black charcoal dust covers the beige walls. The one bit of color, other than the green chalk Mr. Sterr added to make his class different from the rest, is the yellow-and-blue rain boots worn by the boy who sits in the chair closest to the door in the last row. He likes to think his hair is effortlessly styled knowing he spends more than twenty minutes in front of the mirror. He wears light baggy blue jeans that complement a button-up flannel shirt. No matter the season, he dresses for the fall.
Mr. Sterr states, “You can use the discriminant b^2-4ac of a quadratic function to see if there exists roots of that function. If the discriminant of the function gives you a number less than zero, there exists no roots.” His monotone voice drones on and on. Groggy, yawning students don’t know the difference between Mr. Sterr’s statements or his questions.
The boy in the back thinks, These roots are invisible on the Cartesian plane, but they aren’t invisible on the Argand plane. He wants to shout it out. No, I shouldn’t. Last time he spoke up he recalled Mr. Sterr joining the rest of the class as echoes of mocking laughter bounced off the walls of the classroom. He wished to disappear then, never to face this unavoidable humiliation.
The boy was an honors student until sophomore year when one concept didn’t make sense and snowballed into a failing grade. He figured it was best to stick to what he knew best, translating dead languages. He had always been drawn to Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia, home to the oldest civilization of the world.
To start small talk one day during sophomore year he asked his lab partner, “Do you ever feel like high school is kinda similar to the Tower of Babel? Like no one understands anyone anymore.”
“No, we all speak English here, you freak,” said his lab partner, piercing the boy’s eyes with ridicule. The boy in the back felt less and less visible with each scoff. The Tower did fall because no one understood him.
Today everything is going to change, the boy thought. I’m going to attend the game, he continued dreaming, as the classroom gossip took him by storm. I’m going to do what the normal outspoken boys do. I’m going to emulate them. Today, I will walk home with the others, I’m going to be normal. And if they ask me a question, I’ll find the right words.
A few moments after the last bell rings, he can already hear the loud roaring of the pep rally. Before the last period ends, the hallways empty as kids flock to the field. He walks through the hallway where the mausoleum reluctantly greets him as lights tremble with a slight flicker.
Suddenly, he is pushed to the ground by a mob of kids rushing outside. He looks around and sees Mr. Sterr’s classroom. He slowly walks in with the dried mud patterns cracking underneath his footsteps. He looks around the room and senses the change in the texture of the air. Tempted to crush all of Mr. Sterr’s green chalk, he throws the damp rag out the window and kicks the dried mud. Suddenly, the room begins to move. The floor slowly rises and falls to the breath of the boy. His heart rate accelerates. The rising and falling of the floor follows his every beat. The desks break as metal shards fly on pieces of a broken heart. The rot spills out of the walled veins. The mouth between the walls and the floor starts to open. Teeth grind anything that falls through the cracks. The faster the boy breaths, the hungrier the cavity gets. The boy disappears with the last swallow of the mouth.
The next day students file into the classroom with conversations about the homecoming game. No one notices how the chalk turned from green to yellow and blue; fading, in the shape of a mouth. Horrified, Mr. Sterr attempts to write but finds himself no longer in control of the universal language. The boy scribbles, there is the Argand plane, stop ignoring invisible roots.
“It’s time I start teaching you about the implications of math,” Mr. Sterr states as he trembles, noticing the empty seat in the back.
Taking Root: The Girls Write Now 2022 Anthology
For more than two years, our young writers have weathered an adolescence shaped by an ongoing global pandemic. But a harsh climate can also produce work of rare depth, complexity, nuance and humor. The Girls Write Now mentees in this collection have found new ways to build community and take root. This anthology is a catalog of seeds—each young writer cultivating a shimmering, emergent voice. In short stories, personal essays, poetry, and more, they reflect on life-altering topics like heartbreak, self-care and friendship. The result is a stunning book with global relevance of all this generation has endured and transformed.
I was inspired by the horror workshop, and I wanted to write a short story with a horrifying message. The piece changed as I went along, with the first draft being about a boy who brings his peers behind the bleachers of the football field and murders them. As you can see, the final draft does not remotely resemble the first one. Much of the short story was inspired by real life and what I’ve witnessed throughout high school.
Shivani Shah is a high school student from New York City. She enjoys playing volleyball, cooking, creating music and writing poetry.