Swan Song

Melanie Datz

Melanie Datz

“Sit up! Pay attention!” Mrs. Swan’s voice rasps in the quiet room. “We’re talking about sex. Aren’t you interested?” The girls blush; the boys avoid eye contact. Rob Nixon snickers.

Outside the classroom are sun and soft, new leaves; inside are twenty-eight lethargic seventh graders. Mrs. Swan teaches sex ed in April, because spring is sex, and she wants her students to see themselves as part of nature. She faces kids awkward in new braces and recent secondary sex characteristics: Breasts, Adam’s apples, even a few coarse hairs on Rob Nixon’s upper lip. They loll at their desks, knees apart, necks limp, eyes vacant. Mrs. Swan wishes she’d retired years ago.

She hands sheaves of photocopies to the five students heading each row, and they pass them back. Mrs. Swan watches the handouts’ progress; once upon a time, the class would have inhaled freshly inked mimeographs for a momentary high, a ritual destroyed by technology, Drug Abuse Resistance Education—which has an Orwellian ring in Mrs. Swan’s ears—and the students’ passive natures. This class is so listless, she wonders if they only come alive when plugged into an electronic gadget. Her classes used to be livelier, but then, so did Mrs. Swan.

Mrs. Swan knows that in their soft-skinned youth, her students can’t believe she was once young. Mrs. Swan can’t believe she’s old. It seems but yesterday she and Mr. Nelson, the PE teacher, spent their free periods working out in the gym equipment closet, working on each other with tongues and teeth, hands and hips thrusting. She was twenty-four, in her first year teaching, and these children’s parents may not have been born. She catches her reflection in the window—humped shoulders, gray hair, general shapelessness—and puzzles over where time goes: Mr. Nelson, once such an exemplary, broad-shouldered specimen of male sexuality, is now stooped, bald, and has retired to Arizona.

The handout describes differences in plant and animal reproduction, and differences between mammals, reptiles, and birds. Rob Nixon flips pages and shows the diagram of human reproductive organs to Tom Kowalchik. A nervous titter circles the room. After forty-three years, Mrs. Swan knows her students are most interested in the mechanics of sex, and whether someone will ever want sex with them. In her last year of teaching, she’s concluded the most effective sex-ed lesson plan would be: Show movie sex scenes; assure students there’s someone for everyone; explain how to use birth control. Why not? Humans have divorced sex from biology with birth control, test tubes and surrogates, and Mrs. Swan has grown bored with pollination and insect eggs.

The class’s lethargy is contagious. Mrs. Swan shakes her head, tries to focus. She tells Tom Kowalchik to read page one. He stumbles over fertilization and asexual in a monotonous, weary voice. Mrs. Swan sits on her desk to relieve aching knees and wonders if Tom was conceived in a Petri dish: She half-suspects a correlation between increased in-vitro fertilization and the increase in listless students. She wants to shake them up, make them see the world they’re inheriting. Inheriting from me, Mrs. Swan thinks and her mouth goes sour. She’s retiring in June, a grandmother, recently widowed, her useful biological life long over.

They drone on, past pistols and stamens; past insect, reptile, and bird eggs. They reach page six, with flayed male and female reproductive organs. Leslie Wilkerson puts a hand over her mouth. It’s a cheerleader’s gesture.

“Leslie! Stop that, or I’ll use you as a diagram.” Mrs. Swan contemplates running a needle into Leslie’s pale nape, pithing her, laying her out for dissection; she imagines flaps of skin pinned back, and Leslie’s beating heart and glistening viscera exposed.

Leslie’s eyes widen. The class grows alert and wary.

“I’m joking.” She’s lost the thread of the lesson. “Unless you were conceived in a test-tube, everyone is the result of this process: Arousal, intercourse, fertilization and gestation.” The students shift in their seats; Mrs. Swan knows their parents’ sex lives embarrass them. “Your parents enjoyed it. People do. Animals do.”

A stiff gasp runs up the aisles. Mrs. Swan blinks; she didn’t mean to say that.

There’s the white flash of a note—a rarity; these days, they text each other—moving between students. Mrs. Swan steps down the aisle, confiscates and unfolds the scrap. She reads: Horny bitch! She wants someone to fuck her right now!

“Did you write this?” Rob Nixon trembles under her gaze, but nods. “Three days detention. And Rob?”

“What?” He’s scared but defiant, and she’s thankful one student has the guts to misbehave.

She crumples the note. “When you’re my age, you’ll still want sex, too.” There’s another gasp, and Mrs. Swan considers pimpled faces and gangly limbs. “Hands up, everyone who thinks they won’t enjoy sex.” The class blushes collectively. Rob Nixon snickers and tries to look experienced. Nobody raises their hand. “Sex in animals—and we are animals, no matter how civilized and technological we become—evolved into pleasure to maximize reproduction.” Five minutes remain until the bell. Mrs. Swan rambles. “There’s an Australian orchid that mimics a female wasp’s shape and sex pheromones. Male wasps will copulate with the flowers until they die of starvation.” When she learned this, in college botany, she thought the orchid’s mimicry was nature’s cruelest trick; now, Mrs. Swan knows nature’s cruelest trick is old age.

The students’ faces go blank. Mrs. Swan wishes Mr. Nelson was still teaching; she’d drag him to the equipment closet, just to prove she’s still alive.

The bell rings and the class springs from their desks. Benny Jenkins and Tammy Lu stop to kiss in front of the door, tongues straining, hands roaming. They show off. Mrs. Swan would like to hand them the key to the PE equipment closet. She would like to do everything again.


Melanie Datz is under-employed and over-educated. Her fiction has appeared in Night Train, The First Line, Red Clay Review and Knee-Jerk, among others. She lives in Chicago and is working on a novel.


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