A Great Passage From Vonnegut’s “Slaughter-House Five”

“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation. The formatioin flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

Claudette Harty (Spring 1997)

I attended McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, Georgia from the fall of 1995 through the spring of 1999. Overall, it was a pretty great experience, and to this day many of my classmates remain great friends. One of them is Jared. As I type this, I’m currently somewhere over Oklahoma and heading to Scottsdale, Arizona for his bachelor party.

Of course you can’t have the sweet without the sour. There were some things about McIntosh that were less than ideal. One of those was a teacher named Claudette Harty. She taught Speech, and unless you were in band, chorus, or drama, her class was a required course.

Ms. Harty had a terrible reputation amongst the students. She was mean and wouldn’t hesitate to issue detention for unruly behavior or poor marks for what she considered a bad speech. She had no respect for the students, and the students absolutely had no respect for her. Not helping her was her appearance. She looked fucking ancient – white hair, shrunken stature, wrinkles, and more. Everybody thought she’d die any moment, and everybody was looking forward to it with glee.

An example – I had a good friend who was a year older than me who was deeply religious. He attended church on Sundays and Wednesdays, and he was active in Young Life, a non-denominational Christian organization targeted towards high schoolers. He was friendly, outgoing, and cared for others. He wanted Ms. Harty to die before he was forced to take Speech.

* * * * *

I ended up taking Speech my sophomore year. Ms Harty lived up to her reputation. There was one girl in my class who didn’t take her shit. Ms. Harty one time gave her detention for leaving her backpack in the walkway between desks. The next day, she did the same thing and got detention again. And then the next day, the exact thing happened again followed by the next day and the next. It got to the point where the girl refused to give assigned speeches. She failed. She had to take Ms. Harty’s class again.

Personally, I flew under the radar, did the work, and ended up with an A-. The only trouble I ran into was with the first speech. We were supposed to interview somebody we knew, and we had to give a five-minute speech on what we learned. Ms. Harty insisted we use note cards to deliver our speech, and she instructed us to use a specific bullet-point format within our notes. I ended up not interviewing anybody. Instead, I read an article on slaughter-house workers, and I made-up my notes from there. They were great!

The next day, we were give our interview speeches. I sat down at my assigned desk and panicked. My note cards were not in my backpack. They’d disappeared. I never ended up finging them.

The speeches were to be given over the next two days because there were so many students in class. I had a 50/50 chance I would be in the clear and felt lucky.

Ms. Harty called on me first.

I fished some blank note cards out of my bag, walked to the front, and stood behind the podium. The slaughter-house article had fascinated me so much that I amazingly remembered every detail I wanted to include in my speech. I started talking, occasionally glancing down and shuffling through my empty cards. My points were articulate. I was confident, and I was having a good time  talking about how the man I’d interviewed was responsible for placing a bolt into the cow’s head. I finished my speech right at five minutes, and then I took my seat and panicked again, knowing I’d turn in blank notes.

Ms. Harty didn’t ask for our note cards that day. I scored a 97, the highest grade I’d receive for a speech.

It remains one of my proudest moments.

* * * * *

Later that spring, Ms. Harty announced she was retiring. Those who hadn’t yet taken her class celebrated.

Ms. Harty administered her final exam just hours before the Class of 97’s graduation ceremony. After she collected the tests, she packed her things, closed the classroom door behind her, and was officially done as a teacher. She walked through the lobby, exited through the school’s front doors, and then proceeded towards the teacher parking lot. It was then that she collapsed and started convulsing on the ground. I wasn’t there to witness it, but the rumor was that students circled around her and started cheering “Die! Die! Die!” as a major heart attack took her life.

* * * * *

No mention of Ms. Harty’s passing was made that evening at graduation. It was for the best. Whenever us students would talk about what had happened, there was no remorse that we wanted her dead and then got our wish. A friend of mine bragged her car had blocked the ambulance from getting to her. The only remorse came from my Christian friend, but that was only because he’d bitten the bullet and taken Speech during Ms. Harty’s last semester. If he’d waited for his senior year, he would have been in the clear.

The following fall there was a blood drive in her honor. I ended up going not to necessarily honor Ms. Harty but because giving blood is important. It was there I learned that Ms. Harty was actually in her late 50s despite appearances. If she’d made it to her car and driven off campus, she would have had a comfortable retirement with a man she was about to marry. I only know this because he was at the blood drive. He was nice. He shook my hand. He thanked me for coming.

* * * * *

I haven’t thought a lot about Ms. Harty over the years but occasionally share her passing as one of those you-won’t-believe-what-happened-at-my-high-school stories. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to recognize her as a human being that had people that loved her. But it’s a struggle because I then remember her as a mean woman. She seemed to take delight in making us unnecessarily miserable, and for that, she can go fuck herself.

Does that make me a bad person?

* * * * *

My plane is about to touch down in Phoenix, and I’m about to see Jared and many of my friends from high school again. Jared is marrying a girl from our McIntosh days. He recently posted a photo on his wedding website that has them posing in front of out old school. I’m going to text him a doctored version of that photo with a caption that says “Ms. Harty died here.”