“Stories Out of School” Flash Fiction Contest
Teachers have the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet, and their workdays are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This annual contest was created to inspire honest, unsentimental stories about teachers and the rich and complex world of schools. Our partner this year is A Public Space.
The winner received a $1000 prize and the story was published in the print edition of A Public Space. Runners-up received a subscription to A Public Space.
Jonathan Lethem judged this year’s contest. He is the author of twelve novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, Chronic City, The Feral Detective, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and last year became a major motion picture starring Ed Norton.
Submissions for the 2022 contest will open in June 2021.
Jonathan Lethem, author of twelve novels, including Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a major motion picture, selected the winning stories. The first prize story was published in the print edition of A Public Space.
John Francis Istel, first prize for The Metaphor Game.
Lethem writes: “Out of a superb batch of teacher-short-shorts, I finally had to settle on “The Metaphor Game”. It has verve, compression, surprise, and courage on its side—everything you want, in barely three pages. The irony is deft, and it makes a fierce commentary on its social-justice theme and also the current state of disrepair in the world of metaphor.”
Rose Himber Howse, runner-up for Ma’am.
Susan Choi, author of the 2019 National Book Award winner Trust Exercise, selected the winning stories which were published online by Electric Literature.
Jennifer Kaplan, first prize for Field Trip.
Choi writes: “‘Field Trip’ is a cut-gem marvel of a story, every facet glittering with beauty and sly humor. With very short fiction, enormous rigor and efficiency are required – the successful writer has to wring maximum effect from every word while at the same time concealing all traces of this fearsome effort such that the reader feels life erupting on the page rather than senses the groaning effort of a complex machine. The author of “Field Trip” works this magic from the first line, in which we seem to witness a literal metamorphosis of small white feathers growing from a girl’s shoulders, yet are also offered the prosaic explanation of fresh snowfall. With that deft move, the author establishes the thrumming tension that makes “Field Trip” not only an experience of delightful prose but an actual story, with high stakes and a conflict – between tame and wild, rules and revolution, the social and its subversion – the resolution of which we readers can’t predict. What is happening to the heretofore normal life of this classroom? Just as urgent, can we believe this narrator? Is Stella really sprouting wings? Are the students really collectively transforming into a sort of Dionysian cult dedicated to their one-eyed kitten, Dervish – or, given that the worship of Dervish is confined to Fridays, do the rules of school – of society in general – still pertain? While the classroom’s 9th graders believably debate Marx and Nietzsche in ‘wild kingdom’ terms – “Is it better to be lion or lamb? Predator or prey?” – a transformation is taking place beneath the skin of the story that won’t be clear to us until the final, shocking yet delightfully unsurprising, reveal.”
Watch John Turturro read the story here.
Allison Torgan, second prize for The Sub.
Choi writes: “‘The Sub’ tells a story of insiders and outsiders; of know-alls (5-year-old Jacqueline Lopez) and know-nothings (the Sub); of immigration-policy-enforcement agents, and a vulnerable undocumented family; of those able to offer kindness and those who most need it. At the same time as being the story of all these different kinds of difference, “The Sub” is also and above all a love story. In less than one thousand well-chosen words, crises erupt, bonds are forged, lives are changed, and the once-hapless Sub who vowed to quit on Monday stays late Friday to lavish her students’ work with smiley-face stickers. They’ve filled her heart, as “The Sub” has filled ours.”
Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times-bestselling memoir Wild, selected the winning stories which were published online by Tin House.
Santian Vataj, first prize for A Brief Description of Mister Kuka.
Strayed writes: “I loved “A Brief Description of Mister Kuka.” The writing is beautiful and precise, vivid, and sure-footed. In very few words the author creates a striking portrait of both a teacher we all long to have—the eponymous Mister Kuka—and also of the curious object he one day brings to class—a real cow heart, which he zealously examines while his students gather around. Perhaps the real genius of this story is the use of the first person plural narrative point of view, which masterfully zigs and zags between the collective consciousness of a class in the thrall of their brilliant teacher and the experience of the individual students themselves as a world—and a heart—is opened up before them. The effect is magic.”
Danielle Stonehirsch, second prize for The Language of Space.
Strayed writes: “‘The Language of Space’ is a moving story about the difference one powerful moment with one attentive teacher can make in the life of a student. With great economy and clear concision, the author moves the narrative from panicky suspense to understated poignancy. From the first paragraph, in which the main character Elena makes the heart-sinking realization that one of the children under her charge on a field trip is missing, to the last, in which she and the child return safely to the group after having an exchange neither of them will forget, I was emotionally engaged and aching—as all good fiction makes you ache—to know what happens next. It’s a beautiful example of the flash fiction form.”
Karen Russell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her novel Swamplandia!, selected the winning stories which were published online by Tin House.
Walker Rutter-Bowman, first prize for Crafts.
Russell writes: “This piece delighted me. Its author is an artist of the sentence. The teacher at its center, Mr. Fisher, is a wonderfully idiosyncratic creation. You wish a teacher this brilliant and caring and weird for every student. I loved reading Mr. Fisher’s observational intelligence applied to things like the zen of pencil sharpeners and to the surprising emotional realism of wiggle eyes, “poached in terror.” Routed through Mr. Fisher’s vision, seemingly banal objects begin to shimmer and glow. The story has a patina of wonder that is not totally surprising, I guess, given that his students are covered in glitter.
I suppose you could grouse that nothing really happens in this story, which is why its ending feels so inspired to me—a student directs her teacher to the window. Snow is falling. Time’s cycling is magically visible to us, and to the children. Something real has been happening before our eyes, in the transfer of attention and energy and humor between Mr. Fisher and his young students: an education.”
Emily Zdyrko, second prize for I Often Tell People.
Russell writes: “‘I Often Tell People…’ made me laugh out loud. The deadpan repetition of the sentence structure reminded me of Joe Brainard’s wonderful accumulative biography, “I remember.” Each iteration is a new surprise, moving the reader through the daily trials of teaching that veer from the deranging to the heartbreaking to the hysterical (“I often tell people that they are using ironic incorrectly. ‘It is not ironic that you got wet on the way to school. It is raining.”).
By some magic trick, this author has managed to distill years of teaching into a few skillful paragraphs. We might wish to separate teachers into two camps, the heroes and the villains, but this narrator reminds us that teachers are fully human (“I often tell people I feel like neither”); the voice here is tonally complex and totally convincing. I loved it.”
Santian Vataj, honorable mention for The Usurper
Devan Aptekar, honorable mention for The Fourth Sink.