“Fight or Flight” by Kathryn O’Day

Crawford by Brian McPartlon

“Give me the key, Hyacinth.” 

I stand over her. I stand close, close enough to smell the fruity product she slathers on her hair, close enough to thicken the air between us, humid already from the relentless afternoon sun and the heat of three hundred plus adolescent bodies sweltering in caps and gowns next door. 

“Give it to me now,” I say, stepping closer.

Hyacinth freezes mid-chatter, then blinks. 

I can take her, I think, reveling in her shortness.

She smiles at me, then. Just try and get it, her smile says, the key glimmering on a lanyard around her neck. 

And now I’m smiling, too, exposing all my teeth, like so many gleaming knives. I’ll bet even my teeth are stronger than hers, I think. The jangled notes of Pomp and Circumstance float out of the auditorium, where the Sherman High School class of 2017 rehearses for next week’s commencement ceremony. Hyacinth and I stand in the hall outside, two middle-aged English teachers locked in a frozen mirror.

Something flickers in Hyacinth’s eye. 

She releases the key, and hands it to me.

I grab it and turn, heart pounding like a kettle drum. Down the hall I parade in sweaty glory, marching up the steps to the fourth floor where Hyacinth and I share a classroom. 

“I found the key to the laptop cart!” I trumpet, banging the door open. 

The students stare back at me. The bell rings, and they file out, leaving me alone with my prize. 

I don’t care. I feel more alive than I have all year.

I first heard stories of fistfights between teachers around 2003 when I taught at Dern, one of those massive high schools on the west side of the city. It was my first year in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). I was lunching with Joyce and Karen, two veteran teachers who had taken me under their wing, when the conversation turned to the recent uptick of fights in the building.

“At least it’s just the students!” Karen said with a cackle, and then she and Joyce reminisced about past years in rougher schools where students would gather in the stairwells to cheer on brawling teachers.

I’m never going to work in a school like that, I promised myself.

I might not have admitted it then, but deep inside I knew that I, too, was capable of losing it. I’d already spent a large portion of my teens and twenties indulging my rage, ranting at the capitalists and the homophobes and the racists and everyone else I blamed for the sad state of the nation.

Until one day, when I caught sight of myself mid-rant. The face I saw was hideous and contorted – nostrils flaring, mouth slightly open in an upside-down U. It was the face of a monster – one I promised myself would never escape again.

I controlled myself from then on, channeling my anger. I fought with the school administration when they refused to offer an AP English class to my students. I fought with the bureaucrats downtown when they reneged on a scholarship. I fought with anyone who stood between my kids and their education, secure in the knowledge that my fights were both disciplined and righteous. “O’Day don’t play!” I overheard a student say when I gave her class “the look.” Somewhere I have a photograph a colleague took of me in 2007, just before the summer break. In it, I stand tall, surrounded by open lockers and overflowing trash cans. Take that, Dern High School! You’re not going to beat me!

Part of my boldness in that photo came from a secret: I was leaving. Fed up with sacrificing my time, my youth, and my heart to a failing institution, I’d found another job at a “better” school, one that proudly posted college acceptances on its website instead of a link to the official forms for dropping out.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was pregnant, that I’d only teach in the “better” school for one semester before taking a prolonged maternity leave. Nor did I know that the “better” school was only better in the sense that more kids went to college, but that every interaction there would be poisoned by resentment and distrust from a caste-like segregation. Maternity leave stretched into full-on resignation until 2012, when I found a position at Sherman, a “nice” school, this time: college prep but not snooty, diverse but not segregated. Rage had no place at Sherman, so I leashed and muzzled mine, determined to fit in.

It was there that I met Hyacinth Stubb, my fellow monster.

“I can’t wait to be your roomie!” I scribbled in Hyacinth’s notebook after I learned we’d be sharing a classroom. It was September of 2015, the beginning of my third year at Sherman.

She must have known I was lying. I didn’t want to be her roomie. I wanted space – space to teach, to store books and files, to arrange the desks in a circle for class discussion. I wanted space to work undisturbed, to stare blankly out the window, to sigh a bit before tackling the growing mountain of forms that clogged my inbox. A quiet space, a retreat at the end of the day from the din of the intercom and a thousand scrambling teenagers.

Add to that, the incessant noise of Hyacinth’s grievances and gossip –subjects she seemed unable to drop whenever I encountered her in the halls. (“Did you hear about?… Can you believe?… Well, he certainly seems to think… And I said, ‘that’s not going to happen in here, young lady…’”) Over time, I’d learned how to extract myself from her diatribes, but now, there would be no escape. Maybe she just needs for someone to listen, I thought. Maybe she needs a friend.

But Hyacinth, I soon learned, had no interest in being my friend. Even before I arrived, she filled our tiny closet with empty boxes, insisting that there was no room for my supplies. I stored them instead in crates underneath my desk, cramping my legs as I worked. The soundtrack of her misery droned on indefinitely: “Remember that girl I told you about? The one who brings McDonalds every day? Well, I told her…”

I was bound to crack at some point. 

It happened on a Monday when I was behind on grading. Hyacinth, for some reason, wanted to show off the ins and outs of her latest bang-up vocabulary exercise. I tried to tell her that I needed to focus on my essays, but she insisted, fishing out a copy and waving it in my face.

 “I don’t want to look at your worksheet right now!” I blurted. I might have gestured impatiently, too.

For once, Hyacinth stopped talking.

After a pause, she turned, placed the worksheet on one of her many trays, collected her things, and left. 

Finally, I was alone. 

But I had also made her my enemy.

The diatribes disappeared, replaced with a foreboding silence and broken by a snap of her laptop and a slam of the classroom door, which was, I quickly learned, one of Hyacinth’s favorite instruments of control. She kept it locked at all times, even during the passing period between classes. She refused to open it when my students arrived, staring blankly through the window as they tried unsuccessfully to turn the knob, staring at me, too, when I arrived, panting, from the library three floors down. I’d fumble for my key, students rolling their eyes and tapping their feet. The moment I turned it in the lock, Hyacinth would dart out.

By our second year together, I took to spraying disinfectant after her. 

“Someone’s changed the lock to the cart, Ms. O’Day,” Maria Ortiz calls out. It’s June of 2017, and I’ve promised the students they can use the laptops for last-minute research. “Do you have the key?” 

I don’t, but I’m sure it’s somewhere. I check the file cabinet. Nothing. 

I check the ledge by the whiteboard. Then the desk. Then the closet, its shelves, Hyacinth’s empty boxes.

The students watch in silence. 

“I’ll be right back,” I promise, before racing next door to ask Hannah Izzard, who is guiding her freshmen through paragraph construction.

“Hyacinth has the key,” Hannah says, with a knowing look. 

Of course, Hyacinth has the key, I think, as I stride down the hall looking for her. I storm down the stairs, tearing across the third floor, the second, the first. 

Turning a corner, I find Hyacinth standing just outside the auditorium, nibbling a carrot from her prissy old lunch bag as she watches graduation practice, the key glimmering like a medallion around her neck. 

“Hyacinth, I need the key to the laptop cart,” I say.

She blinks. “I beg your pardon?” 

The muscles in my gut grow taut.

“I need the key,” I growl, jaw tightening. “My students need the key.” 

“Oh, Dear,” she murmurs. 

I glare down at her, suddenly aware of how very short she is.

“I’m so sorry, but you haven’t submitted the paperwork,” she explains.

“The paperwork.” I repeat tonelessly. 

“You’ll find it all on the Drive,” Hyacinth says, and now she is twittering on about all the steps and forms and protocols and signoffs that stand between my students and their education –chirp, chirp, cluck, cluck –a bureaucratic harpy feathering her nest. And now she’s no longer Hyacinth Stubb, bitter middle-aged teacher, but a monstrous embodiment of the CPS system –the ogre who packs thirty-two kids into what should be an office; the ghoul who hoards and rations;  the leviathan who hunches over you to tally your copies; who lurks behind you in class to count the numbers of unraised hands; who piles tasks like so many stones on your strained back, never failing to track each slip-up on the Drive.

Chirp, chirp, cluck, cluck. The rage rolls out of my gut like a stream of regurgitated frogs, leaving me purged and primed for violence. 

“Racing heart, sudden increased energy,” I tap into my phone an hour later, searching for an explanation, a name for this cocktail sensation still roiling my core.

Something is clearly wrong with me. Violence shouldn’t feel good, should it?

Not that I was actually violent. Aggressive, maybe, but never violent.

I wonder, though, what might have happened if Hyacinth hadn’t handed over that key.

The “fight or flight” response, my phone says, is a term used to describe the way adrenaline, among other hormones, floods into our veins when we sense danger. 

Adrenaline: reckless, muscular, delicious.

Was it adrenaline that fueled you, Hyacinth, when you locked out my students? Did you feel strong as you gazed at them through the window? Did your heart swell as you darted out? 

Do you smile today, when you think of those moments? 

Or do you think of them at all?

Why do I care, anyway? I don’t work for CPS anymore. Instead, I write, desperately hoping that someone will read my account and consider our plight as teachers in Chicago –squabbling about keys, closets, and carts filled with ancient laptops, distracting ourselves with petty feuds instead of joining together in the fight for social justice –the real fight.

And yet, I can’t help but treasure that moment when you gave me the key. 

Like Gollum hunching over his precious, I treasure it. 

Why can’t I shake you, Hyacinth? 

You have made me a monster. 

You are the mirror that chases me.

In October of 2019, two years after my key-victory, the Chicago Teachers Union announced a strike. The new mayor was refusing to commit to capping class size. Nor would she guarantee a full-time nurse or social worker in every building, despite campaign promises to invest in education. Schools closed, and teachers picketed for more than two weeks, the longest strike since 1987. 

It’s easy to forget about 2019, the year before the pandemic and George Floyd and Don’t Say Gay and the Uvalde massacre. I’m thinking about that strike now, though, because it was the last time that I saw Hyacinth: on the picket line outside Sherman High School. 

By then, I’d resigned from teaching. I didn’t want to fight any more. Not with Hyacinth. Not with CPS. Not, really, with anyone. Adrenaline may feel good in the moment, but too much of it can lead to cardiovascular disease. Too much stress can literally break your heart, and I wanted out before it broke mine. 

Still, I wanted to support my old colleagues, so I fished out my red union hoodie and joined them for a few rounds on the picket line. A bitter wind whipped through the trees, tearing the leaves off. Up and down the block we marched, weary and stubborn, a grim red belt of defiance. 

“Teachers! United! We’ll never be divided!” we shouted, cheering and raising fists whenever people in cars honked their support. Some of the music teachers banged on drums to keep up morale, but the mood was subdued, nevertheless. Teachers were conserving their energy for the long, cold fight ahead. I marched alongside, politely, an outsider.

Periodically Hyacinth would catch my eye as we passed each other on the line. I’m sure she saw me, too, although we never acknowledged each other. We may occasionally fight on the same side, but we will never be friends.

And yet I find myself strangely grateful to you, Hyacinth. You empowered me to be horrible –to fight with my teeth bared. You unleashed my monster, my Gollum, my dear secret Ugly. And so, I dedicate this essay to you, Hyacinth.

In hideous solidarity, I dedicate this essay to you.


Kathryn O’Day taught high school English in Chicago from 2000 to 2018. She is currently writing a memoir about her experiences there and pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies.

Brian McPartlon (born in Schenectady, New York, 1948) attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and the San Francisco Art Institute. Residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, McPartlon paints every day. Recent and upcoming exhibitions include Pie Projects, Santa Fe, and the International Art Museum of America, San Francisco.