On the first day of class, Mr. Puccini lost control. He began with an awkward icebreaker: each student was asked to name one piece of engineering they liked—I chose the Brooklyn bridge—and then Mr. Puccini gave a lecture about the superiority of the metric system. Albert Fizinscki shot his hand high and blurted, “Will we have a class pet?” Mr. Puccini made the mistake of hesitating.

Tanner, the second-year senior, spoke for the room: “What are you, retarded?” All attention was redirected to laughing at Albert’s reddening face.

Mr. Puccini, as a first-year teacher, refused to play the disciplinarian and send a student to the office so soon, so he soldiered on and asked, “How many feet are there in a mile?” But nobody listened, nobody cared. Maybe Albert had been trying to be funny. It worked. The class became a joke.

The mission statement of Tech and Design was, “To educate students in technological literacy and life skills to make them productive citizens,” as described in the elective pamphlet highlighted in the guidance counselor’s office. What that meant in practice nobody knew, which was why Mr. Puccini had been hired. Upon signing his contract for the year, he promised to develop New Jersey’s gold standard curriculum for Tech and Design.

The first project was boxcars. Mr. Puccini gave each team a block of wood which was to be shaved down into the most aerodynamic design, and then each team was to race their boxcars against one another with CO2 canisters. The winners were promised an A for the Marking Period and a piece of Bazooka Joe—to be chewed outside of school.

But you don’t need a wooden car to fire a CO2 canister. My project partner, Lenny, figured out that the edge of a key was enough to send the metal cylinder screaming across the room like a V2 cratering London. Word got around. There was a war.

“Come on, you guys, I’m serious.” For the first two months of class, the canisters created a constant chaos. Mr. Puccini tried to stop us with defeated sighs as we dove behind desks, our bodies marked with deep purple bruises. One of them slammed Puccini’s shin. “I don’t want to have to fail anyone,” he said in exasperated hiker gasps, a neverending climb to reach us kids.

Mr. Puccini was grumbling about most of the class’s lack of work. Marking Period 1 was nearly at its end. The boxcar assignment was the only grade he would have and 27/35 students were failing. But this was Bush-era policy and no child got left behind—they still don’t. Only teachers got left behind, and by “left behind,” I mean fired.

“I need something, anything.”

A CO2 smashed one of the hammer windows, leaving a Fibonacci spiral that shrieked through the central courtyard and spilled into the other classrooms. The steroidal gym teacher, Mr. Beeze, edged sideways into the room, his biceps too big to fit in the frame, and all he had to do was stare murder for everyone to shut up. That was the end of the CO2 project.

“Puccini, you’ve got to get a hold of these kids.” Vice Principal Edwards wrung his yellowed hands. “That’s the second suspension this week. Three’s a trend, Puccini, and then we have a serious problem.” Mr. Puccini gulped.

“Yes, sir.” His lower lip trembled before he got to the meat of his sentences, like a trampoline beneath a burning building, but he couldn’t save anyone, least of all himself. “I will, sir.”

But there was a miracle. No student failed. If you squint hard enough at the letter “F,” it starts to look like a “D,” and here was the secret to saving Puccini’s class. He needed the paycheck; he couldn’t delay his credit card bills another month.

To get things back on track for the second marking period, practical projects were suspended. Tech and Design was instructed from upon high to go abstract—meaning digital. Puccini was disappointed that he had to nix the Spaghetti Bridge Project—the crate of Elmer’s glue now sat in his studio apartment as a side table—but he moved forward, swallowed his root beer, and used whiteout to tune the curriculum. His students might not glue dry pasta, but they would, he reasoned, test their designs through CAD.

In the classroom, there was one buzzsaw, one boring machine, one hammer, one screwdriver, and 25 computers: five rows of five bulky black Dells running Windows XP, because the Board of Education was easily courted with a discount and a smile, the same way Apple woos local districts with tablets today.

CAD was computer-aided design software. No more need for blueprints, rulers, and protractors when all drafts were compiled on a screen. CAD was always intended as the yang to Tech and Design’s darker, practical yin. Now we were told to abandon yin and to embrace yang alone. CAD was how Mr. Puccini lost any hope for that year.

“This is how you use X. That’s Y. If you have any questions, please ask.” He was confident that we would thrive with the software. We were the first generation raised by computers. “Let’s design something cool.” He was right. We did.

When we used CAD, we used its formulas to design designs in all shapes and sizes: penis bridges, penis mugs, penis rockets (the most basic), penis cars, penis planets; the virtue of the penis was its universal application.

So, we played with CAD for about a week, and by played with CAD, I mean we designed our penises until Puccini turned his back and then we traded the grossest links we could find on the Internet, from Totse or B or Rotten.com or LiveLeak, or trolled each other with disguised Lemon Party URLs—those websites of primal darkness. Lenny showed the class pterodactyl porn and my first suicide video, unfortunately not the last. Back then, the Internet was nothing but sex and death—it still is, but it was too. We learned a lot.

Puccini wanted to be a good teacher, desperately. On his knees at St. Anne’s, he clasped his hands and prayed to the patron saint of lost causes to grant him guidance from above. His mother assured him that Jude would listen. He asked the silent saint to help him make an impact, to be a conduit towards higher education for the next generation of architects and engineers and entrepreneurs, to be the person who some future success looked back upon fondly with respect and admiration. He was begging.

Now Albert returns to the stage. Yes, Albert, the one half of the jumpstart cables which electric-chaired Puccini’s potential through an opportunity of ill-timed humor. Class clown he was not. But he was, unknown to all, computer literate. Albert needed a way to redeem himself and, screwing around on the PC in his quiet corner, he found a flaw in the school’s security—a beautiful flaw.

Either IT didn’t think students would check or didn’t know how to block or simply didn’t care, but all the PCs could be booted in safe mode which gave the user full admin privileges, install any software you want. Naturally, we installed Quake II.

“They’re finally working,” The class was quiet, all leaned over their keyboards with Cold War intensity. Mr. Puccini sat tall behind his desk. “I can’t believe it.” A swelling of pride warmed from his big toe to his third eye. For the first time that year, he felt like a teacher.

“Boom! Headshot!” Tanner broke the mood as my character’s skull was mushified. That was the signal to stop hiding. Mr. Puccini stared open jawed at our intense killer eyes, impatient for flickers in our crosshairs to left click the trigger. The social hierarchy of the classroom was dictated by K/D ratios anew each day, and the only one in the class without a single kill to his name was Mr. Puccini.

Monitoring software was installed on Mr. Puccini’s PC: Teacher Feed. He could take control of any computer at any time, puppeteer the caret, get us killed.

“What the fuck, Mr. Pooch?” Tanner yelled. Puccini demonstrated the new tech by taking over his Quake II character and then restarted every PC in class simultaneously. Collective groans.

“That’s it,” he announced, chest puffed like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. “It’s been fun, but now we’re going to get serious.” Puccini held up scissors and promised that the next Quake player would have their VGA cable cut. Snip, snip.

For a time, it worked. Mr. Puccini monitored the computer screens from his own screen’s panopticon, shutting down anyone who launched Quake, giving them worksheets unless they promised to do the assigned project. Lenny and I worked together and reasoned that the best way to escape work was to design a project so complicatedly overwhelming that it would be impossible to build. One week later, we handed in a pencil sharpening machine that required the dimensions of the classroom for its construction. Mr. Puccini was impressed enough to leave us alone.

“Why don’t they have to do anything?”

“Because they did their work,” Mr. Puccini said. “Now do yours.”

But Mr. Puccini was running out of time. The superintendent and VP were scheduled to assess his class in-person, randomly, to answer the fitness of Mr. Puccini as a teacher of Tech and Design. Disaster was inevitable if he was fired. A real teacher would curate, or try to curate, a real class. All of our freedoms to pop CO2 canisters and play Quake would be stripped and we would be left with a no man’s land of worksheets.

Organization was necessary. It was like when a drowning ant colony bundles into a ball to protect the ignorant queen tucked in the yoke, unaware of the danger surrounding her as the colony rocks along the water’s rage. Mr. Puccini had to be protected from ourselves—from himself. Lenny and I dripped the word of impending doom. In exchange, we guaranteed a lift of the monitoring software, which we didn’t know how to fulfill but needed to.

That Friday, the superintendent and VP quietly crept into the classroom, surprising us from behind. There was a synchronous class-wide alt-tab as the watch cooed out the intruders. Everyone was locked into CAD or at the very least Googling innocuous. The VP and superintendent strolled in whispers, nods, stood behind my stool.

“And what are you working on there?”

I stuttered. “It’s an overly-complicated Rube Goldberg machine for pressing a light switch.”

“Do you enjoy your time here? You learn a lot?”

“Yes, sir. Think I’ll go to Stevens Tech and be an engineer thanks to Mr. Puccini.”

They were satisfied. Mr. Puccini’s job was saved. They went back to the VP’s office and poured whiskeys and talked Saturday at the driving range.

When he wasn’t looking, Lenny and I crashed Mr. Puccini’s computer by deleting system32 and a replacement was brought in that did not include Teacher Feed. All returned to normal for the rest of the year. Mr. Puccini issued periodic low-hanging fruit projects—which some did, most did not—and nearly every class was playing games like Quake and Frets on Fire, or going down the weirdest rabbit holes that were still allowed to exist during the Internet’s adolescence. At the end of the year, Mr. Puccini’s contract was renewed. The patron saint of lost causes had listened.

But he should have prayed for the second year, too.


Word of mouth made Tech and Design extremely popular. Guidance counselors bought a new filing cabinet to sort sign-up requests for the elective, and administration championed the schools commitment to technological education by highlighting Tech and Design on that year’s brochure. The class was famous for Mr. Puccini’s do-nothing reputation.

Then state funding collapsed as the economy guttered, and Tech and Design was the first program to be chopped. The power cords of the computers were snipped over the summer, and the VP begrudgingly admitted that Tech and Design had become a true babysitting class and he wasn’t sure who was babysitting who.

Our classroom was split into two halves. Mine and Lenny’s and the friends we told would get to play Quake for a year sat at a single table. The other table was the entirety of the varsity football team—and a single cheerleader. We crowded around ours, they crowded around theirs. The split in the class a DMZ of which there was no telephone to communicate across.

Mr. Puccini acted as the sleepy guard at the front of the room. There was nothing for him to do now that all the teaching and all the designing was halted, except an endless paperwork shuffle assigned to him by Admin. He was red in the face, pimply, his gelled spikes droopy. We were in a late-stage collapse, helmed by Mr. Puccini.

That second year of Tech and Design would have been a chain of nothings strung by the day of the week had it not been for a single punctuated incident thanks to a new student, who would, unwittingly, seal Mr. Puccini’s fate.

His name was Turan, a boy built like a small boulder that kills large trucks. He always wore oversized T-shirts and baggy khakis with dozens of pockets, in which he stored a Nintendo DS and a PSP. Turan had signed up for Tech & Design to play games. Now that the games had been removed from class, he brought his own.

It might have been his unassuming appearance, the glasses big enough to discover new planets, his fruit bowl haircut, but it was most likely the name that led the varsity football team to make the mistake of picking on Turan. (One senior later told me that they chose not to pick on me because I looked like a freeway sniper.) Mr. Puccini was, naturally, powerless to stop the harassment. Thank God. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be telling this story.

“Hey, Turan!” one of the smaller seniors named Sven yelled across the room. He was the only one without a varsity jacket. He sold the team weed and Xanax on the sly to maintain his position, constantly proving himself acceptable. “I’m bored. Give me that PSP, yo.”

Turan ignored the comment. He was busy playing Monster Hunter Freedom, Sven’s voice a fruit fly floating past his face.

It was November. The senior footballers were bored, snickered their time away with the same genius quips. “Heyo, let me see your glasses. Bet I could start a forest fire with them specs.” The football team was the worst in the league. The taunts escalated.

“Okay, that’s enough.” Mr. Puccini continued his paperwork. He still prayed each morning and every night and had been invigorated to jumpstart the Tech and Design program as soon as funding resumed. His mind was electric with ideas. Hopeful.

“I said give me your PSP.”

Turan grumbled, “Get your own.”

“Are you talking back to me?”

“Fuck off,” Turan said flatly. The senior table ooo’d like a monkey backflipped off an elephant. The largest senior slapped Sven on the back and flashed a you-going-to-take-that-? smirk.

“Hey, come on. Language!” Puccini’s eyes never left his chicken scratched scribbling.

A linebacker said, “Kick his ass and take his PSP.” Chuckles.

Turan was in the middle of a particularly engaging hunt when Sven sauntered over the DMZ and stood at the front of our table, “I said give me that PSP.” We traded glances, the same glance that precedes someone diving into blood-soaked waters, the fins of great whites breaking the surface.

Turan turned away from Sven in his seat, never taking his eyes off the screen, not caring enough about anything except for the screen. Sven did fuck off, to where the materials bench used to be. He wiped sawdust into the cup of his palm and sauntered back to our table. Then he stood behind Turan, snapped back the collar of the oversized shirt, poured in the sawdust, and smacked the side of Turan’s basketball-sized head. Sven turned to face the seniors to give a stupid approval-seeking grin. That was a mistake.

The motion was ballerina smooth. Turan paused his PSP, took off his glasses, and then kicked back the chair so that it cracked the linoleum. His catcher’s mitt hand, the right one, latched onto Sven’s face, hugging the skull from temple to chin.  Then he dragged Sven’s body fifteen feet to the tool cabinet. We watched, hypnotized, as Turan slammed Sven’s face against the wooden panel three times, sucking up all the oxygen in the room, choking for a breath to understand what was happening to him.

There’s a hush in my memory, the same hush that precedes a car rolling off a cliff, the moment crystalized for dissection as you lay on the operating table. I wish that moment could be painted: the skull denting, Sven’s spittle spraying a question mark on the cabinet, Turan huffing like a whirling dervish, a scene Frank Frazetta’s brush might give a brutal grace to, but the memory would always be more beautiful.

The crystal broke with the cheerleader’s scream, “¡Hostia puta!” The football team pounced to their feet.

Turan’s right hand let go and Sven’s dazed body slid to the floor, streaking the cabinet’s face, as, at the same time, with his left hand, Turan picked up a chair and hurled it at the seniors. The legs bounced off the table and smashed a CRT monitor. The defensive linemen rushed Turan to pin him, but Turan roared and they fell like snow off a limp limb. Another chair nearly severed the quarterback’s head.

Now what were we doing? Well, we knew better. When Turan flipped a table and bulldozered towards the players charging him, prudence told us to dive behind the one bolted table in the room, sticking our noses over the lip while ducking when random chairs soared over our heads. There was no rationality at work, but almost religious fervor, and we didn’t want to be twisted by the passion of Turan’s Ottoman jihad.

We gawked without a word until Lenny and I turned to our right, and who happened to be ducking in safety with us behind the table but Mr. Puccini.

He cried, “What do I do?”

We yelled, “Call the office!”

Mr. Puccini crawled over to the phone, “Emergency!” and then ducked as a chair splintered the chalkboard.

Mr. Beeze and the shop teacher, an ex-Vietnam vet, burst into the room looking mean and scary, ready to wring the next neck that moved. The seniors picked themselves up as Turan stood in the center of the room panting, furious, only his knuckles bruised. The varsity football team was sent to the office. We, the sophomores, were supervised cleaning the wreckage: adjusting tables, chairs, pointing out that the damage to the back cabinet and computer were irreparable, and told to shut up.

Sven was OSS’sd. He returned to class after two weeks, with a black eye going purple. The football team was condemned to burpees for losing to someone both shorter and younger than them—their confidence crucified.

Turan did not get in trouble. Mr. Beeze, who was the football coach, begged Turan to join the team. Turan refused. “I want to play PSP,” he said.

Mr. Puccini was fired for “gross incompetence” that day.

A sub was brought in. Mid-twenties. Chatted with the seniors or took out his laptop and flipped through eHarmony. Rote routine settled. Turan played PSP, we talked about vandalism and porn, the seniors murmured among themselves and treated us with newfound respect thanks to Turan’s protective halo. I even became president of the engineering club, having absolutely no engineering experience, and Lenny and I used the club as a candy laundering operation.

Eventually, a replacement teacher was found for our junior year and we went back to gaming on the classroom PCs, but the chaos never climbed again to Mr. Puccini levels.

I learned later that Mr. Puccini found a job at a middle-school that specialized in STEM somewhere in central Jersey, and so received the respect and budget he had wanted—as he was much taller than his students and therefore intimidating. He didn’t include his Tech and Design teaching experience from our high school on his resume.

There was a collision trajectory to Tech and Design, as if the fundamental principles of engineering were always Archimedean, serving the purpose of war and conquest, bridging rivers so that the descendants of East and West could break one another.

What was the moral of the story?

The Tech and Design program was brand new under Mr. Puccini and the Tech and Design program died under him, like a giant rabbit that refused to live. I like to think he gets nostalgic for his first two years at our high school, but my guess is he would prefer we all forget. Almost no one in those classes became an engineer: I dropped out of Stevens Tech after one semester. If there is any moral to be had from Mr. Puccini’s short tenure, it’s that Tech and Design was my favorite class.