Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Many of Charles Baxter’s stories feature ordinary people encountering extraordinary strangers who disrupt their normal lives: A woman who visits a psychic and hears of great danger; a man who tries to help a homeless man, only to hurt his own family; a new substitute teacher who turns out to be crazy. In each case, the central character’s life is orderly, even dull. However, unchanging day-to-day routines are no protection against peril. Just under the surface of the most orderly existence, disorder always lurks.
Baxter has said that the idea for “Gryphon” came out of his own early experience as an elementary school teacher. One day as he presented a lesson about Egypt, he found his “facts” becoming increasingly fanciful. The experience made him realize that a teacher can enter a classroom and teach anything—facts or substitute facts—without anyone knowing the difference. As is the case with any good writer, this realization led Baxter to more questions than answers. For example, is it necessarily all bad to offer substitute facts occasionally in an educational setting? His fictional Miss Ferenczi is more creative, more engaging, than the “regular” teachers. Is not it important for children to dream and wonder, instead of merely memorizing?
By the end of the story, Miss Ferenczi is a puzzle. She demonstrates less control each time that she teaches Tommy’s class, until the final day, on which there is a subtle hint of real danger. Very likely, she should not be in a classroom. However, the reader cannot help regretting this when presented with the dreary alternative implied in the story’s last line: “Mrs. Mantei said that our assignment would be to memorize these lists for the next day, when Mr. Hibler would certainly return and test us on our knowledge.”
Although Tommy’s life has been ordered into careful dullness—predictable routines at school, simple chores at home after school—chaos appears suddenly and unexpectedly. For him, the days with Miss Ferenczi are confusing, even upsetting, but they also are freeing, expanding. His brief encounter with danger is also his first encounter with the wider world.