The chair in the principal’s office is so soft that if you sit there for long enough, you can sink into it and never resurface again. That’s what happened to John Burkley. He went into the office, sat down in that plush chair, and they strapped him there and yelled at him until he disappeared forever. Rumor has it that the principal sends him food once a week to keep him alive, with no one to talk to but the dust bunnies.
This is the third time that I’ve been asked to sit in the chair and speak to the principal. Each time before, I’ve managed to avoid that terrible fate, but it has only gotten harder to escape. I fiddle with my thumbs. No one has ever talked to the principal three times in one year and remained unchanged by the experience.
I sit in the waiting room until a student exits the office, seemingly unscathed. He paces towards his next class with his head down. He looks like a new transfer. A sad smile forms across my face. He’ll learn.
“Next,” the principal calls through the crack of the closing door. I push it open with the palm of my hand and enter the room.
The chair is older than I remember. The bright yellow fabric has faded to a brownish mustard color, and the stuffing is beginning to come out of it. I peer through one of its holes to look for John, but before I can find him, the principal motions for me to hurry, so I sit down and face her desk.
“Welcome, Jason,” the principal says. “I suppose you know why you’re here.”
I glare at her. I’m not going to give in that easily. The chair supports my weight.
The principal clears her throat. I still don’t answer.
“You, young man, are failing your classes. I’ve called you in to discuss your options. You seem to need a little extra…” she pauses. “Help.”
“I don’t need your help,” I mutter.
“Your teachers have told me otherwise. I’ve been informed that you haven’t completed a single assignment in several weeks. Is there a reason you’ve neglected your studying?”
“It must have slipped my mind,” I answer.
She gives me a skeptical look, which I don’t find entirely fair. I did forget about the assignments, at least, after I shoved them down the paper shredder.
She lets her suspicions go, though, and continues. “Jefferson Preparatory has a 100% pass rate. We have a wide variety of resources to help failing students—”
I interrupt her. “John was failing. Did you help John?”
“We have no records of any ‘John’ at this school.”
That’s a lie so glaringly obvious that she knows she has to correct herself.
“I suppose you are talking about Jonathan,” she says.
“Burkley. Jonathan Burkely.”
“Jonathan Burkely was removed from our program for tarnishing our reputation and refusing to obey guidelines. A path you may be headed towards if you are not careful, Jason.”
The chair has begun to sink beneath me. I can almost feel John banging his fists against the inside of the chair in frustration.
“Luckily,” she continues, “the staff here at Jefferson is willing to provide you with several options to assist with the learning process until you have fully adjusted to our rigorous climate.”
“What if I never adjust?” I ask.
She stares right at me. No, she stares through me. Her gaze pierces through my chest and locks on to the chair behind me. She remains silent for a while, attaching my torso to the chair backing with two long metal skewers, and I wonder if she’s going to leave me hanging here forever.
“Don’t worry,” she says finally. “You’ll adjust, one way or another.”
She blinks once, and the skewers disappear from my chest. My full weight rests upon the seat once again, but this time, my rear sinks completely beneath the fabric. I try to push myself back up with my hands, but it’s impossible. I’m stuck.
“Now, do you have any more questions, or may we proceed?”
I decide to stay silent.
“Good,” she says. “Let’s discuss your options.”
She opens a drawer and pulls an old leather book onto her desk. She blows on the book to clean it, and the specks of dust float towards me and dance around my vision. She’s like a witch, casting spells on me, trying to transform me into a frog or a snake, or some other type of slimy creature that she could take home as a pet.
She opens the book and reads from it silently. While she’s distracted, I try to escape the grip of the chair again, but the more I try to loosen its grasp, the further I sink in. My body folds into a slight V shape. I sigh. I figure I’ll have to wait until the principal decides to let me go.
The principal looks up to find that I’ve fallen further below the surface of the chair, and I swear I can see her lips form a tiny smirk.
“Jason,” she says, “if you follow these steps, we will be able to get you out of this situation without problems.”
Get on with it, I think. I don’t dare to say it out loud.
“With your signature, I can write a recommendation for our two step preparation program. The first step is the questioning.”
“Questioning? What kind of questioning?” I don’t like where this conversation is headed.
“When first joining our school,” she explains, “many students partake in activities that are detrimental to our learning environment. Usually, students end all involvement in these activities within their first month here at Jefferson. Occasionally, a few students slip through the cracks. When students interfere with the learning environment, it is necessary to find the root cause so that it can be fixed. The questioning method has proven to be very effective.”
It’s true. No one at Jefferson Preparatory throws parties, does drugs, or cuts class. I’ve never seen anyone do even so much as blink during instruction time; everyone writes their notes in neat little columns without ever taking their eyes off of their teacher. They raise their hands to give insightful comments or, every so often, to throw a softball question to a teacher so that he feels good about answering it and being helpful. Then, they go home, and all they do is sit at their desks with their homework for hours. There are no sports teams, no art club, no amateur rappers who think that they’re famous because they got three hundred views on YouTube. There are only students, their worn down pencils, and a desk lamp that never gets turned on because everyone’s asleep by sundown. Working here is every teacher’s dream.
“So you’ll question me, and then what? What’s the second step?” I ask. The chair gradually pulls me in further.
“You’ve heard of our training programs, haven’t you?”
I ball my fists. “Training program” is a horrific euphemism.
You see, every once in a while, you’ll get a kid who’s slow to give everything up. Maybe he’s a street basketball prodigy, and his parents sent him here because the colleges won’t offer him a spot on their team until he gets his grades up. He thinks he can juggle two things at once, so he spends his days playing ball with his friends, and he stays up too late at night trying to get his work done on time. He only has to nod off once during class for the teacher to send him to the principal’s office. They’ll have a discussion, and she’ll write out a recommendation for a “training program” in New York. He won’t be in class for a week or two. No one will notice.
When he comes back, he’s just like the rest of them: staring at the whiteboard with soulless eyes. His school calls his parents to inform them of their child’s success, and they are elated that their son can finally chase his dream. Except then he tells them that he doesn’t want to play basketball anymore. He thinks it’s a waste of time.
Eventually, the other streetball players show up at his house asking where he’s been. They walk up the stairs, open the door to his room, and see a student hunched over a desk, filling out assignments with mechanical precision, and several dull pencils that have rolled onto the floor. He doesn’t even look up. Without saying a word, they leave him there. That isn’t the kid they’re looking for.
No one knows what happens during the training programs. Maybe they’re full of unlicensed surgeons who sever brains into pieces with their scalpels, or maybe they hire psychologists to strap students down to chairs and hypnotize them into robots. Only one thing is certain: the training programs change people. The principal ships you off to another state like she’s returning a defective product back to a factory, and in a couple of weeks, they’ll fix it for her and send it back free of charge. I don’t want to be fixed. All I want to do is tell the principal that she can shove her training programs right up her—
But I don’t say that. The chair would hear me. Instead, I tell her, “I’m not signing anything. I’m not doing the training program.”
“Jason, we have training programs all across the country. We can find the right fit for you. All you have to do is sign some papers. Just say the word, and I’ll bring them to you.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“Jason.” She looks at me pointedly.
“You said I have options. I want to hear my other options.”
“Jason!” She slams her fists against her desk. My lower body swings beneath my torso and I start to fall until the fabric reaches up to my armpits.
“Don’t you understand? You have no other options, Jason. It’s the training program, or the chair.”
I start to wonder if it even matters anymore, because whether I drown inside of the chair or the principal sucks my soul out of my body, “Jason” will never be seen at this school again.
“What if I choose the chair?” I ask.
“You’d be the first.”
“You’re wrong,” I say. “John did it, too.”
She sneers. “John doesn’t exist. We made him up to scare kids like you into submission. It’s easy to make an example out of someone that isn’t real.”
“Liar!” I say. “You’re a liar!” With every word, the chair pulls me further into its fabric. My shoulders are completely smothered, and my neck sprouts above the seat like a pathetic little weed.
“No one at Jefferson would ever sacrifice themselves for some noble cause,” she says. “Look around you. Does this look like a school of martyrs?”
I think of all the dull, monotonous faces I’ve passed by in the hallways, the perfectly aligned rows of desks in every classroom, the pristine school bathrooms, the deafening silence in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and the resigned, shuffling footsteps of the new students after their first meeting with the principal. I come to a realization: it doesn’t matter whether John exists or not because this school will never change.
The principal reads that thought right off my face. “That’s right. Your idol can’t help you now. It’s time for you to sign the contract.”
“I said no.” The principal can reprogram a thousand students to do her bidding, but I refuse to let her control me.
Her cheeks flush with anger. “Do you think anyone will care about your sacrifice? No one will even remember you.”
“I’m not doing this so that they will remember me,” I say. My neck is submerged. I tilt my head back so that I can say my final words. “I’m doing this so that you will.”
And with that, I take one last look at her faltering expression, then sink below the surface.
It’s dark. I can’t breathe. It’s mind numbingly dark. It’s dark like the soot on the floor of an abandoned coal mine. It’s dark like the infinite depths of outer space. It’s dark like twenty thousand feet below the ocean. It’s dark like the gaping mouth of a man eating giant. The dark is suffocating me. I can’t breathe. My lungs writhe inside of my body. Thorns of fire pierce my chest. I can’t breathe. Fear seeps into my blood like acid. Pure agony.
I would do anything, anything, for a single molecule of air.
I’m on top of the chair again. I’m gasping. Coughing. Heaving. The principal looks at her watch.
“Thirty seven minutes,” she says. “Impressive. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t want to come up after all.”
Air is the sweetest thing I have ever tasted.
She pushes a piece of paper and a pencil towards me. “Are you ready to sign this paper? Or do you want to spend more time with my chair? Maybe a week long vacation?”
I snatch the pencil from the desk and sign her contract. I can’t go back there. I’m sorry.
The tip of the pencil breaks off as I finish.
Her smile chills the air. “I knew you’d come around eventually. Now, follow me. Let’s begin the questioning.”
I get up from that wretched, ugly chair and do as she says. As I leave the room, I can almost hear John screaming and begging me to be the one to make his pain worthwhile.
The door closes behind me.
Jayla Stokesberry is an eighteen-year-old writer who attends Aragon High School in California. She developed a passion for writing when she began to use it as a way to express her inner feelings and her perspective on the world around her. Along with writing, she enjoys playing soccer and spending time with her dog.