by Charles Baxter

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This short story by Charles Baxter interrogates the question of what constitutes the truth. Particularly, it considers how the question of objective truth affects children when the adults in their lives are inconsistent about what they say. Miss Ferenczi, the substitute teacher who arrives at their school because their regular fourth grade teacher, Mr Hibner, is ill, is not "usual" in any way the children understand. This is necessarily intriguing, but it also confuses the children to a great degree, particularly because of Ms Ferenczi's assertions that math is "fluid" and that there is no such thing as a hard-drawn fact. According to Miss Ferenczi, there can be "substitute facts," and the important thing about these is whether or not they hurt anyone.

“Will the plants on the windowsill be hurt?" We glanced at them. There were sensitive plants thriving in a green plastic tray, and several wilted ferns in small clay pots. “Your dogs and cats, or your moms and dads?” She waited. “So," she concluded, “what's the problem?"

Miss Ferenczi seems to be suggesting that her "substitute facts" offer the children an escape from a world which is otherwise too mainstream, too humdrum, to hold their attention. To an extent, she is certainly correct. The protagonist of the story, Tommy, tries and fails to have any kind of meaningful conversation with his mother, who does not seem interested in his thoughts or stories. Meanwhile, although Carl, a classmate, argues that Miss Ferenczi is telling "lies," the well-read Tommy identifies elements in her "fabulous" stories which seem to him to ring true. He does not want to believe it is completely untrue that she saw a griffin in Egypt once, for example, because he remembers having read about such a thing:

I ran into the living room, pulled out a dictionary next to the TV stand, and opened it to the G's. After five minutes I found it. Gryphon: variant of "griffin.” Griffin: "a fabulous beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.” Fabulous was right. I shouted with triumph and ran outside to put my father's tools in their proper places.

What allows Tommy to be convinced by Miss Ferenczi is, of course, revealed here in his misunderstanding of the word fabulous. It is only because he is a child that he is convinced by her: he doesn't know that "fabulous" means "of fable" in this context and that, really, this proves nothing at all. Tommy wants to be convinced by Miss Ferenczi because, otherwise, his life is so incredibly boring.

Ultimately, however, Miss Ferenczi is brought down by failure to adhere to her own principles. Her behavior is fine so long as it doesn't hurt anybody, but at the end of the story, Wayne is genuinely hurt by her tarot reading for him and so reports her to the principal. And Tommy, too, is hurt, when this interesting element of his life is torn away from him.

Wayne fell at me, his two fists hammering down on my nose. I gave him a good one in the stomach and then I tried for his head. Aiming my fist, I saw that he was crying. I slugged him.

There is, the story suggests, a way to engage children by offering them something new and fresh, but there are also limitations a responsible adult should place upon these offerings. Miss Ferenczi, in this story, does not limit herself appropriately.

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