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Lucas Cervone, a slightly chubby nine-year-old with bright red cheeks, looks up from the table when I speak to him.
“It’s my cat, Mister P.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask. It’s impossible to tell. The green blob on the paper seems to have three legs—from this angle, it honestly looks like a giant booger. Lucas is either sarcastic or a terrible artist. He hasn’t been in my class long enough to know which. “What’s his name?”
“Mister Willikins,” Lucas says.
“Well, that’s just great Lucas. Keep going. I want you to write three things you love about Mister Willikins.”
He grins and goes back to his green blob. I move on to the next student, keeping an eye on Jasmine Welch as I do so. Jasmine is sitting at the next table over with a look of deep concentration on her face. She’s sketching a picture in grey and black.
The girl next to Lucas is Beth Grice. She’s drawn a unicorn. Or maybe it’s a rhinoceros. It’s pink and sparkly, so probably a unicorn. “Beth, that looks great!”
She blushes bright red. Beth is the shyest girl in my third grade class—I don’t think I’ve heard her speak a word yet. We’re only four days into the school year, of course, so she’s got some time.
I move over to the next table.
Jasmine’s picture is remarkable for a third grader. It depicts a black and grey horse. She’s drawn the horse’s mane flowing back into the air with little ribbons tied around braids, and a little girl is riding on the horse’s back, her own pigtails trailing behind her. It’s a third grader’s work, of course, with nothing in the way of perspective. But she’s dramatically captured a feeling of motion.
“Jasmine, that’s wonderful. Tell me about it.”
“That’s my horse,” Jasmine says. “His name is Mono.”
She nods. “Mom says it’s because he used to be sick. It’s a joke, but not really funny.”
Mono? Maybe not belly laugh funny, but definitely weird funny.
A brief whine from the speaker at the front of the room. The school secretary. They finally have the intercom working again. “Mister P? You have a visitor coming, a Miss Welch.”
“Thanks,” I say back to the disembodied voice. I straighten and walk toward my desk. Lunch is in five minutes.
“All right, boys and girls. Please start packing away your crayons, it’s almost time for lunch. Make sure your name is on your picture, then put it in my box.”
The kids start packing everything away, some of them scrambling to write their names on their pictures.
Jasmine doesn’t move. She has her mouth scrunched over to one side, and one eye is squeezed almost shut. She’s rubbing a grey crayon on a square in the corner of the picture. I stand to get a better look, just as the door to the classroom opens.
“Zoe,” I say. She’s wearing a knee length skirt today, brown and red, with a black tank top, and I have to look away from her very blue eyes. “Come in.”
“Mister P,” she says.
“Matt,” I respond. “Please.” I walk toward Jasmine’s table. “Jasmine, if you can put your crayons away.”
The bell for block 1 lunch rings. That’s us.
“Almost finished,” Jasmine says. That’s when I see what she’s drawing in the corner of the picture. Zoe seems to see it at the same time. A quick intake of breath and she takes a step forward.
Jasmine is drawing two gravestones in the corner of the picture. One says, “Mommy” and the other “Daddy.”
Zoe mutters something under her breath, then I meet her eyes. I quickly look away. “That caught me by surprise,” I say, quietly.
“Hey, Jasmine,” Zoe says conversationally.
“All right, please line up,” I say to the class. As always, it takes several minutes for the class to get it together, though it is definitely faster than the second grade classes are at the beginning of the year. I guess I’m moving up in the world.
I herd my class down the hall to the cafeteria, noting that Zoe is walking along next to Jasmine. Unusually, Jasmine is talking, which is a good thing. She used to be a big talker. My Mom’s still alive—but I never did get over Dad’s death. I know exactly how she is feeling.
That breaks my heart. Whatever else happens this year, I want to help that little girl get through this trial.
Everything in the cafeteria is business as usual. Once my students are in line for lunch, or seated at their tables, I walk over to the lunch line.
Zoe is at the back of the line next to Jasmine, so I end up right next to her. I can’t help but look at her. She’s crazy beautiful. Narrow waist, generous breasts, fantastic legs. She’s smart and confident. Whoever ends up with her is going to be a very lucky man.
Shut up, Matt. Whoever it is, it’s not going to be me. I’m her sister’s teacher, and … that’s just a bad scene.
Even so, she turns to me and in a wry tone asks, “So is this going to be as bad as Army food?”
I grin. “Maybe. I don’t have anything to compare it to.” Although food served on the road and on train, night after night, probably does compare, and not favorably. Of the three dishes available, I point out the most edible one, broiled chicken. Once through the line, we part ways. Zoe goes with Jasmine, and I head to the faculty table, where I sit with Mary Jane Hadley—a transplant from Alabama who sounds like sweet-cream butter spread on toast—and Rhonda Meese, a fifty-year old widower who lost her husband in a snowplow accident two winters ago.
Immediately, both of them ply me with questions about the union meeting tonight, the possible strike, whether or not the school committee is going to budge, and a number of other question I can’t answer. I make it clear to both of them that they’ll have to wait in suspense just like the rest of us, then focus on my eating.
My eyes fall on Zoe again. Zack, the nine-year-old sitting next to Jasmine, shouts, “You were in the ARMY?” Zoe throws her head back and laughs, her teeth flashing white. It’s nice to see that she is capable of smiling. But then Mary Jane speaks in an unpleasant tone to Rhonda.
“Look at her,” she says. “Her Mamma’s been dead less than a week and she’s over there laughing. What’s wrong with that girl?”
Rhonda mutters, “She was in my fourth grade math class. Years ago. Thought she was better than everyone else because her father taught at Mount Holyoke. Then she runs off to the Army of all things.”
Mary Jane speaks again. “I don’t know why they don’t leave fighting to men. Do you think she’s a lesbian? A lot of those women in the Army are.”
“All right,” I say. I lean close to them. “That’s enough. Her little sister is in my class, and they just lost their parents in a terrible accident.”
Mary Jane’s eyes widen and she covers her mouth with one hand in an almost comical expression. Rhonda looks indignant, her face turning the shade of a plum. I grumble and take out a paperback without saint anything else. The book hasn’t been keeping my interest, but almost anything is better than listening to those two.
“Well, I never,” Mary Jane mutters.
Finally, it’s time for lunch to end. My class is standing, and Zoe stands with them, stretching her arms high above her after sitting on the too short seat for the last twenty minutes. The stretch arches her back, pushing her breasts out, and I have to look away.
My class goes to music now, and I get the next fifty minutes free for my planning period. I head back to my class alone and needing to get my head clear.
It would be a really bad idea to get involved with a student’s parent—sister—whatever.
It would be a really bad idea to get involved with someone who just lost her parents and is grieving.
She’s shown absolutely no interest in me at all.
I don’t know anything about her.
Cool your heels, Matt.
Back in my class, I sit down at my desk and begin work on grading yesterday’s math worksheets. Then I hear a knock on the door.
It’s Zoe. I feel a small spasm in my chest. She looks so sad—she hasn’t even had time to grieve yet.
“Miss Welch,” I say.
“Zoe,” she responds, drifting into the room as she talks. “I forgot to tell you earlier, the funeral will be this coming Tuesday. Jasmine won’t be in school.”
“Of course,” I say.
She opens her mouth to speak again. But she’s interrupted when Tyler walks into the room, already talking. “Hey, buddy, did you hear the latest about the union meeting?” He stops when he sees her, his eyes widening. “Sorry—I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “I was just leaving.”
“No, you don’t have to go—”
“I need to,” she says with finality.
I nod. “I’ll send you an email later to let you know how the rest of the day went.”
“Thank you,” she says. She turns to walk out.
Tyler’s eyes follow her backside, then he turns back to me and says, “I’ve been asking around. Everyone’s going to vote to strike.”
“I had the feeling,” I say. “The school committee’s not budging.”
Zoe freezes in the doorway. She turns back toward me and says, “Forgive me for eavesdropping but… you’re not talking about the teachers going on strike are you?”
Before I can respond, Tyler says, “Yes, ma’am. School committee is screwing over the teachers, and we’ve been trying to negotiate since Spring. The union meets tonight to decide whether or not to strike.”
Her eyes dart to mine. “What happens if—you mean, the school would close?”
Tyler, wholly unaware of the obvious turmoil on her face, says, “Yep.”
“You have to stop it,” she says to me.
Tyler chuckles. “Stop it? Matt here’s been our representative through the negotiations! He’ll be right in front.”
Zoe’s clearly horrified. “You can’t… Jasmine… your class is the only thing she has left that she looks forward to!”
“Zoe, I don’t have any control over whether or not—”
“You can’t,” she spits out. “Don’t you understand the shape she’s in? And now you’re going to take away everything she has left?”
I’m frozen in place. I don’t have any idea what to say.
Tyler, always deeply sensitive, says, “Look, lady, hire a babysitter or something. Or get your parents to watch your kid. The strike is happening.”
“Tyler,” I say, an edge in my voice.
“What?” His tone is annoyed.
Zoe’s face flushes red and her hands curl into fists. She spins around, then marches out of the classroom.