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The story “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter is told from the first person point of view. The narrator is an adult Tommy who was a fourth grader when the events of the story occurred.
The flashback approach to the story provides a different perspective than if the child were to be telling the story as it happened. The sense of looking back provides an interesting view of this strange time in the child’s life.
The best part of the story emerges in the form of the substitute teacher Ms. Ferenczi. Ms. F. seems to believe that the children need to be given exotic facts and possibilities from another world. For example, the teacher tells the class that she has seen a gryphon from which is the story title comes. A gryphon is a mythological being half lion and half eagle. The teacher herself might be considered a gryphon half in the world and partly in an imaginary world.
The substitute provides “substitute facts.” Sometimes "substitute facts" are simply wrong or incorrect, but sometimes they are products of myth or of the imagination. At one point in the story, she tells the class that sometimes six times eleven is sixty-eight using the idea that higher mathematics numbers are fluid. She informs the students that this fact may be true only when she is in the room.
When Tommy first sees the substitute, he notices her lines that edge both sides of her mouth. He compares her in a humorous way:
Her face had two prominent lines, descending vertically from the sides of her mouth to her chin. I knew where I had seen those lines before: Pinocchio. They were marionette lines.
The author’s interjecting the reference to the Disney character becomes important with the realization that Pinocchio did have someone pulling his strings making the substitute in comparison not quite human. Also, actually, Pinocchio was a real boy and a liar. Both traits apply to Ms. F.
A few months later the sub returns to the fourth grade class. This time she brings tarot cards and begins to tell fortunes. One of the students goes to the principal and "snitches" on the substitute. She leaves. When the boy narrator learns about the student who told on Ms. F., he gets into a fight with the boy. To keep the honesty of the flashback approach, the adult narrator does not tell if the fortune comes true.
When the teacher’s behavior becomes bizarre, ironically, the students go along with the teacher. As she looks dramatically up at the ceiling when she describes one of her strange stories, the students follow her eyes and look at the ceiling as well. Her actions are far beyond the understanding of the fourth grade students.
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