The author is a physicist and remote sensing expert who writes mostly science fiction. His novelette “Contractual Arrangement” was published in Leading Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy and he has two science fiction ebooks, Blood Orbit and Starbucks Must Die and Other Stories.
by John Derderian
Henry Willis placed jacket and textbook on his desk and stepped to the front of the room. He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then out at his Creative Writing class.
“Now then, picking up where we left off in the text, open to page forty-four.” He turned his back on the students to reach for the book he had just placed on his desk, but he took his time at it, certain that he would not be completing the motion.
An adolescent male voice spoke from behind him. “Mr. Willis, the assignment?” The voice tried to sound both casual and adult, and did not really succeed at either. Willis paused in mid-reach and cocked his head to gaze ceilingward again. The voice added, “You gave us an assignment last time.” A handful of others uttered similar reminders.
“Oh, yes.” Willis turned back to face them. “The assignment. You were to write the most offensive two-word sentence possible. A complete English sentence, with correct grammar and punctuation of course, and exactly two words long.” He smiled at them for a moment. “It was quite an assortment of emails I received, I must say.” He dropped the smile and gave a brief, stiff-lipped shake of his head. “I’m afraid, however, that none of you came up with the correct answer.”
He turned to the whiteboard. “Here is what you should have sent me.”
He took up a black marker from the tray along the bottom edge of the board. He twisted the plastic cap off it, producing a small squeak that was easily audible in the now quiet room. He deliberately affixed it to the other end of the marker while the class waited. Then he began writing in the center of the board, at the level of his chest, in his usual precise printing—seven neat letters, a combination of capitals and lowercase characters.
His body hid most of it from the students’ view while he wrote, but someone must have seen enough to get it, because he heard a hushed gasp while he was carefully filling in the oversized period at the end of the sentence. He twisted the cap off the back of the marker, replaced it over the point, and set the marker down in its tray.
He turned to face the class again, stepping aside as he did to uncover his words:
There were a number of reactions from the students, from grunts to giggles to hands raised up to foreheads, but no one actually spoke. Willis gave them a moment to absorb the written words before he continued.
“Let us examine this sentence to understand just what makes it so offensive—that is, so effective at achieving its intended purpose.
“It may seem too small or trivial to justify such examination, but there are lessons to be learned from it. As I have stressed before, the essence of good writing is evoking emotions and images with few words. The shorter a written work is, the more it deserves careful analysis to understand just why it works.
“Let us consider the second word first. God. There are other words I could have used here. There are other names, of course: Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah. But for this audience—you, the students of St. Jude’s—these other names do not carry the same immediacy. ‘God’ is a loaded word for this audience, bringing a great deal of baggage with it—thousands of years of context, personal as well as historical significance. By my use of the word, my sentence takes on the weight of this baggage without my having to write it all out explicitly.
“I could also have used other phrases in place of ‘God.’ ‘The Lord,’ ‘the Father,’ ‘the Almighty,’ these all carry the same literal meaning for this audience, but not the same impact. These alternatives feel more like titles or descriptions rather than the name of God. The sentence feels more direct, more personal, more offensive by the use of His name. A matter of disrespecting the man, not the office, as it were.
“Now let us consider the first word.” Willis ignored the fidgeting and the stifled giggles that he saw and continued without pause. “A common profanity denoting a sexual act, but much more than that here. The literal interpretation of the sentence, connecting this act with God, is absurd, if not altogether meaningless, and the offensiveness of the sentence does not primarily derive from that.
“Rather, the word I used is another heavily loaded word, bringing with it almost as much baggage as the word ‘God.’ It connotes not just sex, but disrespect, debasement, disgust. It is arguably the most heavily censored word in the language.
“The impact of the sentence comes from these words bringing all their weight, all their context and symbolism and implication, and releasing all that to the reader in less time than it takes to say ‘Good afternoon.’ I want you to remember this when you write. Consider your audience, and employ appropriately loaded words whenever you can.
“Your goal in writing will not usually be to offend, and hopefully you will never have occasion to use this particular sentence. But from now on, every time you sit down to write anything, be it fiction or non-fiction, a letter to your mother or a complaint to your congressman, whatever your purpose in writing it, I want you to stop for a moment and think, ‘Fuck God.’”
He turned to reach for the book on his desk. “Now, open your texts to page forty-four…”
“What were you thinking, Henry?” Katherine Harmon stood and almost shouted the words as Willis stepped into her office.
“May I sit?” Willis said.
“Yes, sit.” She made it sound like a command. She seated herself behind the large, burgundy-stained desk, the plaque declaring her Katherine Harmon, Principal centered atop it like a tiara.
Willis laid the two books he was carrying down on one corner of the desk, then draped the jacket, which had hung over his arm, across the top of them. He sat in one of the two matching burgundy chairs arranged symmetrically before the desk.
“I was thinking,” he said, “about how to present a lesson that would stick with the students.”
Harmon seemed to ignore this, as if reading from a prepared script and determined not to be diverted by his response. “You wouldn’t use that kind of language speaking to me, Henry.”
“Certainly not,” he said, in complete sincerity.
“Then what in Heaven’s name made you think it was okay to address God that way in class?”
“I wasn’t addressing God. I was presenting an example.”
“This is a religious academy.”
Willis said, “I recall that. I’ve taught here for sixteen years.” He did not mention that she had only been there for two.
She said, “The academy cannot advocate sacrilege, Henry.”
He sighed. “I wasn’t advocating sacrilege, any more than Peter advocates genocide when he teaches the Holocaust. You’re smarter than that, Kath…”
He stopped himself. She was smarter than that. She wasn’t asking for an explanation, or even debating with him. She had already made up her mind, and she was justifying it, to him or to herself.
He said, “Am I fired?”
“We’ve had a lot of complaints, Henry. From the parents who pay the tuition.”
“How can that be? It hasn’t been a day yet. How many…oh.”
Katherine seemed to respond to him for the first time. “‘Oh’ what, Henry?”
“I was just remembering how quickly we modified the curriculum last year in response to ‘a lot of’ complaints about evolution and creationism. I was remembering how few complaints there actually were, and who the complainers were. I was thinking how poorly served the students were by that decision.”
“This isn’t about me, Henry.” She stood up, leaning forward on arms that rose like pillars from the desk top. Or, the image flashed for a moment in his mind, like goat horns poking up from the tiara’ed head. “You—”
“Am I fired?” he asked again.
She stepped back and turned her head to the side, as if something more important were happening in the yard outside her window. “You left me no choice, Henry.”
He stood wordlessly and retrieved his jacket from the desk. He left the books where they were, turned and headed for the door.
“Henry, what would you have me do?” she said to his back. There was just a touch of pleading in the question, and it made him stop and turn around.
She was looking at him again. He studied her face for a moment. She was not pleading for him to give her an alternative. She was pleading for some indication that he understood, some sign of forgiveness.
He slipped his arms into the tweed jacket and pulled it around him. “This is not advice that I’ve ever given anyone before,” he said. “Normally it would be presumptuous, but under the circumstances I think it appropriate. Since you asked.”
He paused to straighten his collar with both hands, and thought for a moment of his last lesson to the students of St. Jude’s. She waited in silence until he spoke again.
“Just this once, Katherine, I would ask you to put yourself in God’s place.” And Henry Willis turned and walked out the door.
Copyright 2015 by John Derderian