Hallways are empty. A quiet filters passed doors open and doors closed. The breaths of teachers within classrooms ebb and flow with the tick and tock of moments. Forces of anxiety sit within our classroom, watching intently as the weight of 35 years culminates upon the shoulders of our dearest teacher — obliterating the passion she once had into a fine dust that trickles passed her mouth at an instance of the ebb, then explodes into a frenzy at the moment of the flow. The tock signals a bursting of energy within our classroom, and away the children tear from their warm seats and into the hallway, without a second look or a second thought of who or what remains over their shoulders.
There she stands alone, head hanging, eyes fixed on the floor, aimlessly staring until a break in the silence pulls her away from the only solace she is allowed before, only a few minutes later, she must resume her dance of the ebb and flow with these moments that have confined her for so long.
“Can we come in?”
Their audacity flares her eyes and tightens her lips. The ebb again. Only this time her breath deepens and is pointed in a peculiar way as she stands there teetering at the helm of our classroom. “Don’t you see that I’m in the middle of something?” she threatens. “You can come in…” Hesitant as they are, their toes slowly move to break the plane of the door at these words. “When I say you can come in!” They pull back into the hallway, shuddering together behind the classroom wall. All at once, their looks suggest an immense fear for what has happened, but more so for what is about to happen — 45 grueling minutes of the most melancholy performance these kids will ever witness outside of a Salinger novel await them in that classroom.
Holding off for as long as possible after the warning bell, a tired and lazy gesture finally motions the children inside. They sit silently, hardly breathing, as our teacher stands defeated, staring from her helm, dancing again around those moments wrought with resentful and jaded anxiety.
“How’s it going for you?”
“Awful. They just don’t get it. They’re doing awful.”
Desks now fill with familiar chatter of the day’s circulating drama and rumors. Dirty lunch bags, stale sandwiches, unhealthy candy bars, and browned fruit lay untouched and ignored on the tables amidst unending gossip, yet the children were wrangled and corralled together to feed far away from this place, far away from our teacher. No. The chatter doesn’t belong to the children. Not this time.
“And that mom emailed me again today. She keeps asking how her son is doing and I want to tell her that he’s an idiot. He’s awful. He does nothing!”
Nodding, her peer bites into a sandwich and releases an almost indiscernible and certainly riled reply, “I had him last year. The mom is crazy!” Spitting bits of ham and mustard, she points her sandwich at a random chair that may hold any child, but at this particular instance, this chair, in that room, holds that child: the figurehead of an entire school year’s animosity. “She emailed me every single day wondering about her kid’s grade, and I wanted to do the same thing; tell her that her kid sucks!”
The memory of that mother fills the air. Our teacher, breaking the momentary silence, admits that she had her as a student many years ago, but resumes again in her way of quietly recalling so much of what she once enjoyed in life — the time when a young woman was so privy to her virtuous influence on a much, much younger girl, who will undoubtedly grow to become a young woman just the same, caring and cultivating fragile young life as well.
But something has gone wrong along the way. Something has become disrupted and desperately lost, and no longer is our teacher so privy to virtue as she is to the unending chorus of blame for the failures of young women and young men who could not cultivate their own young, who could not match the once-vibrant virtuosity of our now forlorn teacher. She is stained with their shortcomings, and all of that hopeful idealism has taken form as a hollow shell that writhes and clamors, as she is suddenly shattered at the chime of every bell.
And it rings again.
“Are you still going tonight?” her peer asks, getting up and forcefully stuffing her barely touched sandwich back into her bag. “I could use a drink after this crappy day.”
Startled, yet shaken free of her heavy anguish, our teacher announces, “I’ll be there. I have to talk to administration about my evaluation after school. These kids are doing awful and the last thing I need is to hear about how awful I’m doing because they and their crappy parents can’t figure it out. Order me my usual and I’ll be there.” Her peer leaves and our teacher, alone again, stares as the hallways flood and threaten the quiet, dull haze of her room.
Her peers surround that table and welcome her with smiles freshly awakened after countless hours of wrinkled brows, tired eyes, and bitten lips. She sits with them with her cold drink and lets out an overly drawn breath as her friends share familiar stories of their unforgivable plight.
“Can you believe that?” one of them exclaims, our teacher watches intently as droplets form and descend from the top of her glass to the table. “How can they do that to us?” another calls out at the moment a watery ring soaks through the tablecloth. “I just don’t get it!” They are going around the circle like the chamber of a smoldering gun running out of bullets, aimed at their administration, those young children, and those young and clueless parents. She remains still and watches and listens and attempts to match her glass to the ring after she sets it down again. It is her time now to share her story, but what is there left to say?
At that moment something of utter perplexity stalls their conversation. A server interrupts the fervent sips of drinks, irate flailing of hands, exclamations of contempt, and the making and matching of rings in the topography of a cloth that contains multitudes of memories had and memories forgotten.
“I think it was!”
“No! It can’t be!”
Our teacher breaks from her glass and calls out, “It’s definitely him. That’s Billy!”
Gleaming within this moment, she straightens in her chair to get another look as the server walks away with their orders in hand. She strains to confirm the assertion she just made, looking past ghostly faces as Billy appears and disappears in the crowd. Almost standing, while craning her neck, our teacher seems satisfied to realize that the young man who took her order is, in fact, the same Billy who had been so impossibly defiant of her so many years ago; it is that same young Billy who now has shaken loose from our teacher’s infallible animosity with his defiant air of unmitigated youth and opportunity.
For all she ever learned and became in so many years as a teacher — equal parts loving, devoted, devastated, and tortured — here she remains with her glass and all of her memories, good and bad. They sit with her, dripping from her glass and pooling at that table — a flood of nostalgia as the Billys of the past and the present defy her with their audacity to thrive beyond their youth, beyond the failures and shortcomings of young mothers and fathers, to overtake the 35-year classroom of our teacher. She remembers them all as her server returns with a fresh glass.
“Do you remember me?” she asks.