Sometimes I think the only moments I have of joy are caused by utilitarian objects. Sharp scissors that cut construction paper and are where I last left them? Googly eyes with auto-adhesive backs? A hardback version of a classic book with wipe-down pages? The dopamine spike is sharp and immediate.
I read my gratitude journal and ask myself when it was exactly that I became a school marm? Am I unquestionably one? I must be, if I know the word.
I know how to pronounce Nietzsche too, but no one asks.
I never want to ask the unhappy couples if they’re okay. Sometimes I can’t help myself, the words come out and I feel like a fool but they’re out already and there’s no stopping the response. “We’re fine!” they tell me, us, whomever. “Never better!” “Great!” “Happy!”
And then one morning you see pink around their eyes, or the sunglasses never come off, but the wedding ring is off, and they’re too busy to say good morning.
Invariably the children’s clothing is rumpled, his or her hair isn’t brushed – and no one is happy I said this.
“So you got another guinea pig?” I asked the children. They were eating applesauce and whispering amongst themselves. “You know what happened to the other guinea pig,” Lexie told me, eyes widening like we were sharing a secret. Yes, I knew. “Hopefully this guinea pig won’t leave,” Clary said, nodding for emphasis. “I love Red.”
“His name isn’t ‘Red’ Clary it’s Baxter!” hissed Lexie. “Don’t lie to Miss Lola!”
“I wasn’t lying! I changed my mind and now his name is Red.”
“He isn’t your guinea pig. You don’t get to name him. We had a, a . . . ”
“Vote?” I supplied. All such school decisions are settled by vote. She nodded. “A vote. His name is Baxter.”
I wish I could tell John the stories I want to tell him. I guess I never say what I set out to say but most of the time I don’t really care, or else the rhetoric of work is basic and easy to follow.
I wonder how it is for people who get to know friends and then see their children, smaller fragmented reflections. I’m only used to getting to know the children until one day I see a smile – a walk, a casual mannerism – in the adult that I immediately recognize from the child.
It isn’t the sort of thing to talk about, but I feel my lips curving into a smile nonetheless.
“You have to do something about Clary,” Skeletor told me, brows furrowed. She’d just walked in, neglected to shut the door behind her, and was slapping her hair frantically into a ponytail. “You – just – have – to do something about him!” she continued between tugs on the rubber band. Once her hair was up she took several deep breaths to calm herself. I noticed her hands were shaking, and I looked down at Clary. He was watching her, biting his nails and looking worried.
“What’s wrong,” I said, drawing out the words and choosing the tone of voice I keep filed under “soothing.” She looked at me. “There will be no more naps for Clary at school.” I considered. He’s too little for no naps, you know, so I countered with “What makes you say that?” She shot him a stern look, he stopped fidgeting. “When we get home, he’s awake for several more hours. And not only is he awake, he expects to eat and play. I can’t stand it. If you don’t give him a nap then he’ll go home and fall asleep immediately. That is what I need: we go home, he goes to sleep. So no more naps at school, ok?”
“What are you talking about?” I countered before I could stop myself. “He can’t come from school so exhausted that he immediately falls asleep! He gets sleepy in the middle of the day and he needs a nap – all the children do. All children his age do, too.”
“Well that’s not what I need!” she was beginning to get flushed. “I’m going to have to talk to the director herself about this because it is simply unacceptable that I, a parent, make a request of you, a teacher, and you refuse to comply. That is just – I mean, it is just unacceptable.” She turned around, and strode out angrily though the still open door – this time slamming it shut behind her.
Clary was still chewing his nails. I dropped down quickly and hugged him. I felt his head resting on my shoulder, his little fingers pressing into my back with a worrisome amount of pressure. Gradually his breathing slowed. Someday, I thought, your parents will wonder why you have gone out into the world needing so much affection and approval, why, when you were raised with everything.
Should I go to work tomorrow? I turn the thought over in my head, over and over, carefully, like a tangible thing.
Sometimes things end well by not seeming over. The unfinished quality can be a sort of crutch – a conversation that was left on pause, a discussion that was to be resumed, measurements still to be handed over, paint swatches to compare – a deposit, a guarantee. It’s easier, later, to roll all the intangible remaining bits up into a little ball that can sit somewhere until it dissipates.
Goodbye never does what it should, so I don’t say it. It doesn’t provide a pat ending – not even an ellipses. I’ll be there, at work, tomorrow, knowing that I’m about to be gone – temporarily, but far – and there will be no goodbye to create a false sense of urgency, of poignancy. No one will suddenly hijack what should be my experience to tell me that whatever form of transportation I take is the least safe, or how to stay alive five seconds longer if I’m set on fire. Hot Dad won’t start a hugfest that will vividly remind me of chiropractic work. Instead I will hear a long story about how a banana that was supposed to be eaten in the car has somehow made it all over the face, into the pockets, and smeared on the shirt. “Can you tell Miss Lola you’re so sticky?” Offending Parent asks, unaware that his or her child is mortified to be banana-smeared in front of teachers and peers.
The richer the parents, the more inept they are at feeding their offspring a banana. Fact.
I don’t know if I’ll go in tomorrow. My vacation has already technically started. My existing memories of bananas might prove sufficient.
The degree to which I am sick with a stomach virus is directly inverse to the amount of generosity I can summon. For the children? Oh come on they’re children, I didn’t say I became an ogre. For their parents?
I feel like a southerner of the bad dental hygiene variety when someone approaches his porch.
“Where are you going, Miss Lola?” Clary asked me when I stood up. “The bathroom, Clary,” I answered, wondering why it should interest him so much. Usually I get up, sit down, walk around – without incident. “Are you going to be gone a long time?”
“I hope not.”
“Can I watch you in the bathroom?” Amelia gasped. Should I give the ‘he’s a little kid and doesn’t mean anything by it speech’? I wondered. Nah, guess not.
“No, Clary, you can’t watch other people in the bathroom. It’s private time.”
“Are you gonna be back for lunch?” At this point I wanted to see what his mind was working at so intently. “Of course. Nobody takes that long in the bathroom.”
“Mommy does,” he said, looking down. “She goes in the bathroom with her phone and then I have to go to bed.”
I should probably not even say anything about this. Skeletor will only eat me alive and replenish her youth. Or something.
Amy does not now nor has ever been employed at any of our child storage facilities (child storage being an inside joke I feel certain you are all clever enough to comprehend).
She does, however, work in the industry, which means she is a teacher. We met at a workshop where the host dispensed such gems as “Don’t even pretend to yourself that you know all the names of your kids. Count them. You got a fire drill? Count their heads. Tornado busy destroying the town? Count their heads in the basement.”