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Post Road Magazine #32

Tell the Children

Rebecca McGill


In the six years she'd spent as a substitute teacher, she'd known them simply as the students. Now, as a full-time lead teacher, she knew them as her students. She worried about the use of this possessive. She worried that it would play tricks on her mind. She worried that she'd forget they belonged elsewhere. She worried that when the parents departed from the classroom each morning and the tiny bodies were transformed from their children into her students, she'd forget that the children had lives beyond the plastic chairs, beyond the posters of innocuous wildlife (baby seals, parrots, cheetahs), beyond the wooden letters that, when connected by magnets, formed an alphabetical train. So she asked them for reminders, notices, tiny postcards from their other lives.

"Draw a picture of your family," she told the students at the Coloring Table—six of them, the particularly capricious, imaginative ones who always avoided the Numbers Booth—and placed sheets of orange construction paper in front of each small body.

Dale, the one who persistently sought a demonstration, asked her how to draw a hammock and pushed towards her the coffee can containing the crayons. Coffee cans acted as her classroom's Tupperware, their aluminum walls encircling the components of her kindergarten classroom: crickets, erasers, pennies, yarn, scraps of paper on which she'd made the students write their career goals because she believed dreams were best born early. In the two weeks since school had begun, her students had quickly identified the importance of the coffee cans; they'd begun bringing in cans from their own kitchens, hoping their cans would later be called to duty to give a home to paper clips, miniature milk trucks, or the class fish, Archer Fleece, who stayed in a can when his tank needed cleaning.

She knelt down beside Dale, removed a black crayon from the can, and drew what looked like a sunbathing C, stretched out and satiated. "See?" she said. "Hammocks are easy."

"No," said Dale. "Not it."

This, above all else, unnerved her about the children: their insistence. They'd come to recognize the power of their eyes; they could identify the world, name and un-name it, accept it and reject it. So, too, did they have the power to deliver this world to others, and they delivered it to her on a daily basis. She nodded her head upon receiving their deliveries because, until this year, she had been a substitute teacher and knew what it meant to distribute faulty restatements of the facts. She'd once told a third-grade classroom that Johnny Appleseed was from Des Moines. So she listened and smiled when Ralph told her that popsicles were made in washing machines, when Anna told her that she had an uncle with wings, and when Glenna said dancing put little black marks on a person's soul.

"Well, what does your hammock look like?" she asked Dale.

He shrugged. "Not that."

She tapped her fingertip against his paper. "Then show me what it looks like," she said and watched as Dale proceeded to draw an object that looked like a spider wearing a cash register on its back.

"Great," she said. "Terrific."

She had never liked squatting down beside the children, and now her knees hurt. They looked silly in front of her, her calves and feet invisible, as though she could represent only part of a person.

Anna looked up from her own drawing and brought her eyes to Dale's creation. "Yes," she said. "Aunt Sally has a hammock, and it does look like that!"

This unnerved her, too: the students used possessives like oxygen when it came to objects, but my left their vocabulary when conversation turned towards people, so Aunt Sally belonged to everyone.

"Draw yours, Ms. Til," Dale said, setting down his crayon. He pushed a piece of paper in her direction, driving it towards her with the tips of his fingers.

"Mine?" she asked. "I don't have a hammock."

"Not your hammock," he said. "Your family."

She'd reddened. Of course she'd reddened, her face taking on the color of ground meat, the kind distributed on plates of Styrofoam at the deli. She hated herself for this, what she'd come to call her Meat Face, but the color claimed her cheeks and ears because in the first two weeks of school, the students hadn't asked about her life and now their preconceived notions were coming to call, saying, A teacher must have a family and she felt indefensible against their musts.

"Draw your babies! Babies to kiss," said Glenna, drawing her lips together in a pucker. This was another thing about the children: they loved babies. Even the meanest, most off-putting children spoke often—and fondly—of infants they'd seen on the street or read about in the books they carted into the classroom from the library at the end of the hall.

She held the crayon in her hand and watched as the children stopped working on their drawings, putting their own worlds on pause to glimpse at hers. Ralph placed his green crayon behind his ears and crossed his arms over his chest. He enjoyed these postures, the adult signals of judgment and apathy. Once, he'd pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and closed his eyes, saying, "You're just not following me."

She looked down at the paper, its blank surface asking that she locate her loved ones and collect them on the page, as though cutting and pasting it into 8 1/2" x 11" spaces was what one did with family. She pressed the crayon onto the page and began to draw a stick figure, waxy black against the orange background. On the figure, she drew a large hat, and in its right hand, a shovel.

"Is that you?" Ralph asked.

She nodded.

"You look boring," said Anna, Anna with the knack for identifying the interesting, Anna with an interest in being interesting. She openly discussed her hatred of the color pink, and as her career goal, had chosen I will sing songs to firemen.

The shovel had been a last-ditch effort to make her figure look purposeful and mask the empty space above her left and right shoulders. She'd worked towards avoiding this space—in her drawing, in her mind, in her life—but she saw now that the space was as obvious as a thumbprint, rude as profanity, an absence that cultivated the presence of sorrow.

But what else? What else could she draw? Her mental image of her father consisted only of what he must have looked like in his final moments, and the children wouldn't want to see it, the smack of the deer against the windshield, the end of a man with three children under the age of five. And her mother? Too tall, too lanky, too much liquor in hand, too difficult to locate in the backwoods of New Hampshire, too often with a woman who was perhaps her lover or perhaps the only person who demanded nothing. And her twin brothers? One in China—finance, trade, briefcases, hotels that made you sleep in drawers instead of beds—and one in a New York town called Batavia. He never called, except on her birthday, when he inevitably told her she was too in her own head and maybe it was time to take the next plane out of there. Now, he'd said. Now.

But it seemed better to claim one of her brothers on the page than to claim nothing at all, so she drew a head, arms, legs, hand. Even when the figure was complete, it still looked insufficient and vague.

"Who's that?" asked Anna. "Your husband?"

She blinked at Anna, then looked down at the figure. This was the finishing touch it had needed. At the mere mention of this word—husband—the figure acquired new meaning and gave weight to the female figure beside it. So, too, did it give weight to this otherwise flimsy, transparent, laughable approximation of her life.

"Yes," she replied. "That's my husband." This felt less like a lie, and more like a Halloween costume on her tongue.

"What is he?" asked Glenna.

The six children—Glenna, Dale, Anna, Ralph, Patrick, and Isabelle—pitched their bodies forward, clamoring to get a glimpse of the man. Husbands, she knew, intrigued them; the children didn't recognize their own fathers as husbands. Their fathers were fathers, no more, no less. Husbands existed in fairy tales, in commercials, in grocery stores, and now, in their teacher's drawing.

"A…telemarketer," she said, though she'd meant to say "paramedic."

"What's that?" asked Glenna.

"It's a man who sells things on the phone." She paused. "He works from home. He doesn't have to go to an office. It's hard for him to leave the house. People always want to talk to him because he's very handsome. He is also very tall. And sometimes he picks me up and carries me into restaurants. And we order dessert first."

Ralph blinked, then rested a chin in his hand. "He could probably wrestle."

She elongated the figure's arm, connecting it to the palm of the other figure so that its shape eclipsed the shovel's handle. "He could probably wrestle," she said, realizing that her legs had fallen asleep and realizing, too, that she didn't care.

By lunch time, news of her husband had traveled from the Coloring Table to the Numbers Booth, from the Reading Carpet to the Animal Center. Even Archer Fleece seemed to swim with greater enthusiasm, excited by the room's palpable energy. In the Puppet Corner, Melvin placed a zebra on his arm and said, "I am a husband!"

In the afternoon, after the children had departed in the arms of anxious mothers or half-empty school buses, she stood over the Coloring Table and collected the drawings. She could, she knew, toss her own drawing in the trash, letting it mingle with milk cartons and tissues and apple cores. But it seemed a different thing, not ready to meet its end. It seemed alive, like a Post-It note marked with the name of a restaurant she intended to visit. She placed her drawing on the bulletin board next to Anna's drawing of her family, a drawing with green arrows pointing to five purple stick figures.

On Thursday, she meant to avoid the Coloring Table. She meant to focus on the Numbers Booth and to teach Gerald, the suspected genius, about prime numbers, but the children at the Coloring Table—seven students this time—raised their hands into the air and called her name, saying, "Draw more! Draw more!"

She drew a house, calling it "our house." She described the stainless-steel appliances, saying they looked like jewelry in the right light. "Before I met my husband," she said, "I had a plastic coffee maker. Can you imagine?"

The children laughed, their sounds a theme song for second-rate objects.

She used words that confused but enchanted their tiny ears: trellis, landscape architect, storm windows, wall-to-wall carpeting, five-hundred thread count. They asked questions about backyard gardens and whirlpools and refrigerators stocked with ice cream sandwiches. She said yes, yes to everything, denying nothing. Her words lived only in the affirmative, confirming the children's greatest hopes, materializing their deepest desires. She said she loved the house, said they'd lived there since the nineties.

"The nineties?" Glenna asked at Story Hour.

She'd meant to read Hansel and Gretel, but they'd encouraged her to put down the book and tell more about the house, the husband, the garden with the ice sculptures and karaoke machine.

"I was married in the nineties," she said. "I don't even remember what life was like before I was married. I got married before you were born."

A collective gasp came up from the circle. Anna clutched at Glenna's braid. Dale bit his lip. The children marveled at any person or object delivered from a decade they'd missed.

During morning recess, she watched the children from the window, sprinkled tiny flakes of fish food onto the surface of the water surrounding Archer Fleece, and told herself it did not matter. The life she relayed, it meant something. To them, not her. It made them hopeful, hopeful about the world, about adulthood, about how life would unfold in front of them, miles of wishes granted and deserved objects received. The other facts, the ones associated with her life, would make them fear the world. They'd recoil at the sight of her single, solitary stick figure on the page, weighed down by the space around it. They were too young to think lonely existed. Let them think it a myth, she thought, and considered buying a companion for Archer Fleece.

On Friday, she brought in a framed photo and placed it on her desk during snack time.

"This is him," she said to her students. She brought in the photo for them, not for her. She wanted them to know he watched over them like a velvet angel on top of a Christmas tree. She'd decided it wasn't enough for them to know of him; they had to see him, though of course they weren't seeing him. They were seeing a photo of her high school Biology teacher, which she'd cut from an old yearbook. At seventeen, she had loved him in the faulty, dull way one loves a teacher. She'd wanted to wear his lab coat, that much she remembered, even after he said she was "overbearing, well, not overbearing, but almost." He'd warned her about adulthood, said she wouldn't be able to "elbow her way into it." She let Anna kiss the photo.

"He's handsome like a prince," Anna had said, studying the blurry mark her lips had left across the glass. Her eyes widened at a sudden thought. "Handsome like a prince from Russia."

This was the highest compliment. The children had recently learned of Russia, finding it on the inflatable globe and trusting in its open, full form. They perpetually posed questions about Russia. Dale had asked to be nicknamed Russia. Glenna had asked to revise her career goal, throwingMake staircases in the trash, and replacing it with Go to Russia every day.

She knelt down, putting a hand on Anna's shoulder. "Anna, I'm going to tell you something. And only you, okay?"

Anna gave the solemn nod of a favored student. Anna was, of course, the favorite one, the one she'd choose if she could have any of them because of course teachers thought about this, imagining parents distributing the children like Halloween candy.

"He lived in Russia," she said. "And he visits Russia. In the spring." She put a finger to her lips. "But don't tell the others."

At this, Anna threw her arms around her neck, marking the first hug she'd received from a tiny set of rail-thin arms.

Over the weekend, her mind went elsewhere when her hands reached for lettuce at the grocery store, when her arms scrubbed mildew from the shower walls, when her eyes looked over the pages of the magazine the postman had left in her mailbox though it should have been delivered to the woman in the apartment next door, Mrs. Kelve, the therapist Baptist or Baptist therapist (she couldn't remember the order of things). Her brain took a walk through the realm of verbal possibility, stopping to look at each statement, inspecting it like a new car. On Monday, she'd tell the children that they'd honeymooned in Greece and that he wasgood with numbers. She'd wear her best shirt and say he picked it up for her. She'd paint her nails, say he preferred that color. She'd hum a tune, say it was his favorite, the one he sang before he proposed in a bakery in front of a cake that looked just like the one they'd chosen for their wedding.

On Monday, she brought leftovers in a small Tupperware dish and held it up in front of the children. "We do not cook for two," she announced. "We cook for many." The children nodded attentively when she explained the notion of a candle-lit dinner.

On Tuesday, the Coloring Table commissioned a series of drawings called Super Mr. Til. Dale drew him holding a gun made from ice cream. Anna drew him riding a dragon into a swimming pool. Glenna simply wrote the word KISS across the paper, circling it with a large, grey heart, and dangling stars from the tip of each S.

On Wednesday, she brought in her prom dress—she hadn't been to the prom, of course she hadn't been to the prom, but a neighbor had given her the dress anyway saying, "Every girl needs sparkling touches"—and said, "This is the dress!" The children cheered and formed a line to touch the sequins around waist, the satin, the segmented line of thread pressed against the hem. Even Anna, Anna who hated pink, Anna who wanted to be interesting, Anna would understood the precise and imperfect rejection of normalcy, said, "It's like a movie dress."

They asked and she told. She told all day. They asked about his childhood, his siblings, his brave but brief career as a fighter pilot. She told until the afternoon, when the guidance counselor, Mr. Harvey, a small, elderly man no taller than a mailbox at the end of a driveway, arrived to deliver the first of his bi-weekly guidance lessons.

"They're looking a little glassy-eyed," Mr. Harvey said, approaching her desk as the children took their seats at the tables. "Did they just have a snack?"

"Yes," she said. "They did." This wasn't a lie. What was a story if not a snack? A story offered nourishment, promise, energy.

"A sleepy face doesn't worry me," he said, winking. "That's the only face my wife ever makes," and as he walked towards the front of the classroom, she imagined his wife, Mrs. Harvey, a grey woman who wore ill-fitting cardigans and placed spoonfuls of soggy peas on her husband's plate each night at dinner.

Mr. Harvey stood next to the cheetah poster, unknowingly positioning himself so that it looked as though the cheetah were about to pounce on his head. "I'm Mr. Harvey," he said, addressing the children with a small, thin smile. "I'm a new visitor to this classroom. I'm a new friend to you, and you're a new friend to me. I think it's important to get to know your new friends. Today, I'm going to learn about you. We're going to do an activity that lets me find out about you." He then instructed the students—her students—to draw pictures of themselves doing any activity that they liked to do.

As they retrieved crayons from the coffee cans and began to draw, she watched from her desk in the corner. She felt far away, unknown and unseen. She felt as though she'd lost them. She wanted to shout an addendum to Mr. Harvey's request, asking the children to do something else, to draw a certain shape across the top of their page, exclamation points or squiggles, a sort of code that said, We're hers.

But this, she told herself, was simply what it felt like to momentarily lose a thing, to have it take on a new life in front of you. Perhaps the parents felt this each morning as they moved their children from their cars to her classroom.

She stared at him as he walked around the room, conversing with the children and asking them about their drawings. He stopped by Anna's chair and peered at her work.

"What are you doing in your drawing?" asked Mr. Harvey.

"I'm sewing a sweater for Desperado, my cat," she responded.

"Mmm. Well, it looks like you're holding him on your lap and sewing."

"I'm sewing it on him," she said.

"Well." Mr. Harvey's response did not extend beyond this word. He returned to the front of the room. "Now, my new friends, I want you to find someone in the room who made a drawing that shows them doing the same activity that you're doing in your drawing."

In a matter of seconds, the students became visibly frustrated, unable to find a drawing that matched their own. Ralph put his hand against his forehead and began shaking his head. Anna stood, hand on hips, saying to Glenna, "But you have a cat so why didn't you draw the cat?" Gerald shrugged and turned to Patrick. "It's hard to draw a Rubik's cube, but I did it."

"Alright, alright!" said Mr. Harvey, clapping his hands. "Let's all have a seat."

"But no one drew what I drew!" said Glenna, holding up her paper. "I drew me making fruit salad and nobody drew anybody making fruit salad!"

"I know," said Mr. Harvey. "And I know you feel frustrated. But why do you feel frustrated?" He walked towards her and put a hand on her shoulder, then guided her towards her chair. "Do we all need to draw the same thing? Isn't it okay that our pictures are different? Isn't it okay that we are all different?" He looked at Glenna. "Isn't it okay?"

She stared at her drawing and shrugged. "I just like fruit salad."

He beamed, as though her words had been a compliment directed towards him. "We all do different things, but that's okay because we're all different. But when I see what you drew, I learn about you! And I love to learn about you. If I made a drawing, you'd learn about me, and you'd learn why we're different. If Ms. Til made a drawing, you'd learn about her."

"She did make a drawing," said Anna, pointing towards the bulletin board. "It's right there!"

"She drew Mr. Til," said Dale.

"Mr. Til?" asked Mr. Harvey.

Her Meat Face. It appeared as though on command, without warning, with insistence, surely deeper and redder than ever before.

"We don't even need the drawing anymore because she brought in a picture," said Ralph, motioning towards the framed photo on her desk.

She looked from the framed photo to Mr. Harvey. Mr. Harvey, the man she'd met at in-service. Mr. Harvey, the man she often saw in the parking lot. Mr. Harvey, the man who knew the words "Mr. Til" did not have a physical equivalent.

"Well." Again, the landscape of one word to indicate the entire continent of reaction. "I think we're done," he said, smiling and looking down at the children. "You, my new friends, get to go out for recess, and I'll see you next time."

After the children had formed a line, Mr. Harvey opened the door and the students rushed past him onto the playground. They brought with them their noise and movement so that when they were gone, the room took on the familiar, eerie silence of a place once occupied by children.

"Karen," he said. "May I see that photo?"

She took the photo from her desk, stood up, and held out the photo, a peace offering, a smoking gun, a confession, a knock-knock joke.

"Who is this?" he said, taking the photo from her without look at it.

"My husband," she said.

"I wasn't aware of your marriage. You don't wear a ring, and you've never made mention of him before."

"Well," she replied, her mouth readying for another lie, the easy, good concoction. "I was married."

"So this is your…ex-husband?"

"Yes," she said, marveling at the quick-fire magic of false assumptions.

"So he's not really your husband?" she asked.

"Well, not legally," she said. "But emotionally, you know…I'm still attached."

"Karen," he said, sighing. "Your attachment is your business, not your students' business."

"That's not true," she replied. "He is their business. He's important to them."

He raised a grey eyebrow. "Important?"

"They need him. They need him in the way they need Santa Claus."

"They don't 'need' Santa Claus, per se," he said. "Santa Claus was provided to them by somebody. Santa Claus does not meet a need."

"Well, then, they like him." She paused. "And I think we should let them keep him."

At this, Mr. Harvey crossed his arms, pinning the photo against his chest. "No. We won't be doing that."

"What would it hurt?" she asked, because she did not know.

"It would hurt your accountability. Our accountability. If a parent asks about him and they discover you've presented your ex -husband as your husband, we're all going to be accountable. It will make them wonder what other misrepresentations are floating around this school. What if your students ask to meet him? What if you run into one of the families at the post office and they ask you where he is? It starts with the children's questions and ends with the parents' questions."

"That won't happen."

"It might. And what will you do then?" He paused, then spoke in a suspiciously soothing voice. "Is it embarrassment, Karen?"

It wasn't embarrassment. Of course it wasn't embarrassment. But she'd lost its name. If she knew the name, she'd wish it into her mouth.

"You don't need to be embarrassed, not in front of them, not in front of me, not in front of anybody. They couldn't care less, we couldn't care less, whether you're married or divorced or single, whether you've got a gaggle of kids or a houseplant." He motioned towards the playground. "Those children want honesty, just like everyone else."

"How do you know that's what everybody wants?" she asked, because maybe he knew, because maybe everybody knew what everybody wanted, because maybe there'd been a meeting and maybe she'd missed it and here she stood wanting what everyone else had decided against wanting.

He blinked at her and cocked his head. "Because who wouldn't want honesty?" He smiled the same small, thin smile he'd worn when facing her students. "Honesty has a certain thrill to it, you know." He took the photo frame and held it in front of him, finally looking at the image within it. "A doctor?" he asked, handing it back to her.

"A biology teacher," she said flatly.

"Well." He stared at her for a moment. "Just try honesty, ok? Think of it like, I don't know, a new red jacket or something. It might feel good. When the kids get back here, tell them the truth. Tell them that this man is no longer in your life and take that photo off of your desk. We want to be sure that everyone's clear. They'll accept it, and move on to something else." He began walking towards the door. "We'll keep this between us, of course. Unless it's not…handled. Then we'll have to tell others. But I assume you'll handle it because I know you can handle things." He winked at her before disappearing into the hallway.

When he was gone, she walked over to the window and stood in front of Archer Fleece. She watched him swim the length of the bowl, then back again. She turned her gaze towards the children outside. They occupied every corner of the playground, their bodies marking their favored territories. Anna played hopscotch with Glenna. Gerald stood beneath the monkey bars. Dale offered Ralph a high-five by the jungle gym.

Tell them, Mr. Harvey had said.

But what to tell them?

She could make drawings, drawings of the tiny apartment, the threadbare couch, the musty closet, the refrigerator that made the strange noise each evening like chickens were at its backside. She could tell them of her brothers, of her father, of the impossibility of strangers, of how meet is a four -letter word, complicated like geometry and rough as sandpaper. She could tell them that bodies used to be beside her, but bodies disappear in instants, in years, in the slow progression of weeks and months. She could tell them that things were difficult for her, some for good reason, others for no reason at all. She could tell them that it had felt good to say those squat, tight words: him, ours. She could tell them she'd marveled at how thick and good her life became when elevated to something told rather than something lived.

She looked down at Archer Fleece and remembered her plan to buy him a mate. She'd forgotten her intention; it had left her like breath. She scooped him up from the water and examined him in her hand, his tail swaying back and forth against the unfamiliar territory of her palm.

His motion startled her. She had expected him, she realized, to curl up on her skin like a kitten in her lap. She had expected him to like it there, with her, outside his space. She had expected him to nuzzle her palm, to purr, or to stretch. She resented the wide eyes and the swishing tail that told her he was unfamiliar with kindness, suspicious of nurture. She resented his gaze, the way he looked at her as if he didn't know her, as if she hadn't seen this gaze before, as though she would not see it, would not feel it.

She stuffed him into her mouth, not for her, but for them, because what if he looked at children like that? What if they learned the feeling of being unknown? In a gulp, he was delivered into her stomach, a rush of scales and silk down her throat.

From within her, he would, perhaps, raise his eyes upwards to see her throat. He would, perhaps, watch the words leave her body, linked together like the children when lining up for recess, I and am and alone. But it wouldn't be true; she would be occupied by something, though it was small, no bigger than a pack of chewing gum, a thing once known, then claimed, and when the children returned to find him gone, she'd say, He's here, but you just can't see him.



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