Clean Sweep

The short story presented here originated from the author’s experience as a student teacher in the undergraduate elementary education program at Temple University in Philadelphia. It is the first in a series of previously unpublished stories to be posted regularly on this web site.

He sits in the back of the classroom, a shaggy sheep dog’s distance from his peers. In fact, some insensitive types might say that Andy Bellamy is one good childhood bath short of a flea collar.

In addition to his sour body odor, Andy’s physical appearance is a mess. His eyes are as swollen as a prize fighter suffering from insomnia, and his jaundiced skin makes him look like a cancer patient.

As Andy chews on his lower lip and strains to read my name on the blackboard, a few of his miscreant classmates begin to ride him. And when a gang of hormone-raging, seventh-grade boys razz on one misplaced geek, well, things can get ugly fast. Forget the old standby “Kick Me” signs taped to a kid’s back. We’re talking about insults that could make a person crawl into a corner with the feelings of a blasphemous, three-horned cannibal shunned by lepers and circus freaks alike.

Before the students settle in with their fashionably ragtag threads and suspicious gawks, I overhear one of the boys hum a jingle from a “Sure” deodorant commercial. I nearly intervene at once but since it’s the first day of my career in education, I bite my tongue – and choke on my unspoken words. I’m so filled with adrenaline and caffeine that my nerves are already frayed. Besides, I don’t want to confront a student without first introducing myself. It seems inappropriate. I want to make a good first impression and the last thing I want is an inauspicious start to the rest of my days as a middle school teacher.

I decide my tact will be good-natured directness and enthusiasm. If these kids aren’t here to learn, then they’re here to teach. I plan on immediately creating small groups. Because of their diverse backgrounds, I’ll have them speak of their heritage no matter how much or little they know of it. I want them to come up with characteristics that separate them from each other. Then I’ll have them change roles for a day. For today at least, the less they’re aware of me, the better.

Of course, this isn’t going to be easy. I chose a rough-and-tumble, inner city environment and these children are as far from Ward Cleaver’s sperm bank as I am from being in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

Not 30 seconds before the first-period bell rings and yet another misconduct case. This one, a gangly boy with what passes for an unemployed trucker’s mean streak. He offers Andy a handkerchief and tells him to “clean the crust from your ears and wipe the snot from your nose before I puke on you.” Andy ignores him by inserting one finger in his ear and the other in his nose.

I’m afraid it’s going to be a long year.


On the second day of class, I notice that Andy contorts his puffy face every time I utter even the simplest declaration. I assume it’s the earwax and make a mental note to ask the nurse to see him. For now, I ask him to change his seat from the far left corner of the room to front and center. He’s not pleased by the request, as evidenced by his groans and shrug of shoulders, but he obeys. A few of his unruly classmates jeer Andy as he collects his things and moseys his way to his new seat assignment. I admonish them for their outburst and impulsively threaten to assign a 250-word essay on “Why I Like to Tease People Who Are Different Than Me.” This quiets them and I quietly applaud my first victory as a disciplinarian. Sometimes there’s an advantage to acting on instincts.

We’re more than halfway through the school year and I can’t believe the change in Andy. He still has less than acceptable hygiene but his classroom participation has greatly improved. He likes the idea of a fictional world and I’m amazed by his imagination in our writing groups. It’s cliche but accurate to say he likes the idea of escaping what is most likely an unhappy, unhealthy household. He hasn’t confided in me but I get the feeling he likes me. The hero in his stories is always a teacher.


It’s the final day of my first year teaching seventh graders and Andy Bellamy is sitting upright directly in front of my desk. He smiles wide as he observes a commendable report card. Andy no longer smells foul and the boys no longer make fun of him. In fact, Andy is admired for having won a statewide writing contest. In his award-winning fantasy short story, Andy created a teenage character that went from being the most abominable creature on earth to the most cherished. The character descended from many different backgrounds and no one could understand him. Then along came a teacher who deciphered his language. Unlike what many had assumed, the character turned out to be quite talented. He performed miracles with a body made of handkerchiefs. All he had to do was brush past a person and he cleansed his heart.

Dan Cafaro is the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, a small, independent publishing house located in Old Town Kensington, Md., a close-in community of Washington, D.C.  Dan is actively seeking manuscripts from authors with distinct voices. If you have stories that you would like considered for the “Timeout for Fast Fiction” series, please e-mail a query to

2 thoughts on “Clean Sweep”

    1. Patty,

      How nice to hear from you. A distinct Hasbrouck Heights voice would do just fine.

      I hope this finds you and your family doing well. D.C. is treating this DC A-OK. I venture back to Jersey as often as I crave the company of loved ones and Taylor Ham. (Not always in that order.)

      Tell your sister, Kathy, I said "Hi." A first love, of course, is great material for stories.


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