A tableau vivant. Odysseus versus the Cyclops.
“Lucas! Does this look like the example?”
Brenda, pointing to the wall, to a slice of butcher paper with horizontal red stripes and a dotted blue square. Luke, standing at the table, shoulders back, all joyous defiance.
I was partial to kids like Luke who seemed oblivious to their slightness, their size relative to the people running the planet.
“I should rip this up so you can remember to follow directions.” She held Luke’s painting above him as he grabbed fistfuls of air.
“Ready for lunch, Luke?”
Brenda pivoted. “Hi, Antigua. Didn’t know you were in today.” A smile for me. “Lucas. Clean off the table. And follow directions next time.”
I helped Luke gather paints and brushes until I heard the door close. The drying rack was covered with earnest attempts at the flag, with varying numbers of stripes and degrees of straightness. Brenda had hidden Luke’s painting near the bottom. Seven bold concentric red circles covered the paper, within them a blue sphere with white cloud-like daubs. “Luke! This is…amazing.”
Luke smiled like he liked the compliment but didn’t need it. This kid.
“Tell me about it.”
“It’s the woold.” An alert stare, then he shot off for a sponge.
Last summer I’d gone to Mexico for a research project, the lone undergraduate in the group, my first time in Latin America. After a month spent interviewing community leaders in Chiapas, I’d traveled alone across the border to Guatemala. I visited my namesake, the city where my parents had met, the setting for the photo of them as sunburnt backpackers under the arch of Santa Catalina, the Volcán de Agua rising in the background.
I knew that the professor who’d recommended me for the project hoped I’d return from the trip impassioned, ready for more research, with a clearer idea of my future. But when I arrived in my hometown, I felt foreign, displaced. My neighborhood, formerly comprised of old homes with untamed gardens and grass that grew long between mowings, had been changing over the years. Properties sold, land divided into smaller plots sprouting new houses, symmetrical flowers flanking front doors painted whichever color was in vogue that year. Over the summer the roads in the neighborhood had been freshly paved, new street signs posted.
I felt, walking along those roads, looking at the flawless lawns, the modern houses, that I was on a theater set, that Mexico and Guatemala had been the real world and this was artificial, shadows on a synthetic cave wall. I mourned the dusty roads, the open-air markets, of Latin America. I missed living in easy camaraderie with graduate students and professors, waking up to the sounds of Spanish and Tzotzil, buying handmade textiles from the women and children in the zócalo in Antigua. And I remembered children on the streets, working in pairs, asking for money and food. Sitting down in the dust to share quetzales and bread with them, aware of their smallness and my own, unable to do more to help.
“You’re turning down the research position to work at a preschool? Are you thinking of your future?”
My father’s reaction was similar to my professor’s.
“Aren’t you overqualified for that?”
My father prided himself on his lack of snobbery, which was inconsistent. My mother had worried about the university I chose, concerned that I’d feel pressured to conform, align myself with the haves and come home embarrassed by our old house, my bohemian parents. My father, though, had approved my choice, argued with my mother. “Leah, let’s be honest. Some universities are better than others.” They’d disagreed on the gifted program, too. When my elementary school had informed parents about the new grant, the Stanford-Binet testing, the instructor hired by the state, highly trained in working with “exceptional children”, my mother had protested. She was opposed to tracking in education, thought it elitist that some children got extra support—why not all of them? She’d only been convinced when Ms. Zimmerman described studies of gifted children becoming depressed from having their curiosity thwarted by teachers not trained to work with them. Children turning angry and frustrated, prevented from reaching their potential.
“How am I overqualified? I’ve never worked with kids before.”
“Is this about last summer? Because I don’t think turning down a college internship to work at a preschool is going to help children in Guatemala.”
The owner had liked me at first.
I’d seen the job posting in a café downtown, a cheery flyer promising that I could MAKE A DIFFERENCE, and when I called, Rachel, the preschool owner, invited me to visit. I drove past the concrete-block preschool, thought it was an old factory, until I saw the scruffy playground littered with plastic equipment.
Rachel met me in her office and asked me why I wanted to work with children. She described the school: the only preschool in town open 14 hours a day; some of the families received government assistance to pay tuition. She gave me the school brochure with photos of beaming teachers hugging happy children. When I asked, she said yes, some of the children were there from open to close, and she could tell just by the look on my face that I had a heart for children. I could start next week.
I spent the next few days reading the school’s brochure, skimming my mother’s parenting books, gathering my favorite childhood stories.
At Future Leaders Preschool, we will nurture your child’s natural artistic ability…We at FLP don’t believe there are rules in art. We encourage children to pursue personal expression and “color outside the lines”. We don’t provide art models, which inhibit creativity…
Future Leaders Preschool incorporates positive discipline…FLP does not believe in using “time-out”, which teaches children that spending time alone is a punishment. Our nurturing caregivers respond to children using the 1-2-3 approach…
The children were luminous, wild, sweet, crawling over me, leaving me only when the teachers clapped their hands and called them away. Leanne, the head teacher, described the children to me, what each one loved, who had a new sibling at home, who needed more help than the others. Brenda, who’d worked there for years, listed off the school rules to me, interrupting herself to shout at the children. At the end of my first week, when Rachel asked what I thought, I misunderstood her question as sincere. I pointed out that classroom practice didn’t resemble the school philosophy, shared my concerns about Brenda. The next week I gave suggestions: could we replace the Barbies with lifelike dolls, buy books in different languages, books that didn’t feature only white children? I brought a list of names and contact information of organizations that provided grants for new playground equipment, for new books and toys. She took the list without thanking me, started avoiding me after that.
I regretted answering the phone.
Ms. Zimmerman’s daughter didn’t sound like her mother. Her voice was hesitant, a lot of hedging, repeating that she’d understand if I couldn’t make it.
“You were one of her favorite students. She spoke about you a lot.”
It didn’t sink in until I hung up. Ms. Zimmerman had died.
I’d thought about her often the past few years, when I was far from home at a college where most people had gone to prep schools, boarding schools. Somehow everyone knew who was on scholarship, and that bothered some people. That bothered them so much that I wondered why it didn’t bother me. My parents, who tended not to judge people based on money, were partly responsible for my immunity. My father had friends from his days volunteering as a union organizer, people who drove old beaters and borrowed money; my parents made friends at their framing shop, customers who paid hundreds of dollars for custom mattes and frames, nouveau riche who asked for art advice, and old money country-club members who told stories about their latest acquisitions.
But it was about more than money. I spoke up in class, I debated professors, even though many women in class didn’t. Even though I wasn’t the smartest in the class, not even close. It was that I didn’t mind being different. I didn’t mind being an outsider. And that’s what made me think about Ms. Zimmerman and her classes. Lee, Dale, Dillon and I. Ms. Zimmerman didn’t tell us we were better than the other kids, but that we were different, and being different, even being weird, was acceptable. And the other teachers, those who admired Ms. Zimmerman and, by extension, us, taught us that to be different was to be lucky. I was grateful to Ms. Zimmerman.
So why did I regret telling her daughter I’d speak at her funeral?
A line of symbols floated at the top of the screen.
“E is the most commonly used letter in the alphabet,” Ms. Zimmerman said and walked away.
I stared at the screen, the groupings of symbols, punctuated by a few commas and a period at the end. It was a coded message. My nerdy heart swelled and I feverishly counted the symbols and started typing letters.
“Why is red? What does blue sound like?” she asked, and we wrote poem after poem. “Write whatever you want. There are no rules except: you must try.”
She introduced us to syllogistic logic puzzles, geometric proofs. We’d read clues and fill in charts with X’s and O’s. The Russian woman doesn’t like dogs. The man with the cat speaks Portuguese. If we were crushed by a wrong answer, she’d say only, “You did good work. Keep trying.”
Ms. Zimmerman read us mysteries and stopped before the reveal to ask, “Who did it? What are the clues?” Dale was told to give only one answer because otherwise the rest of us wouldn’t have a chance. Sometimes I thought the class was really just for Dale; the rest of us there so he wouldn’t be alone.
When we moved to another state, my new school had a lackluster gifted program, no regular classes, only occasional enrichment clubs like haiku-writing or a science fiction book club, led by an angry part-time English teacher who responded to every question or error with, “I thought you were supposed to be gifted?”
A summer of drawings of square torso-ed people with 3-fingered hands, of paper covered in lines of shaky rolling Os and children asking, “What does this spell?”. Of nonstop questions during story-time, of looking out at flushed faces, bottomless-pupiled eyes storing edacious wonder. Days of remembering my dad quoting Kerouac, “The only people for me are the mad ones, mad to live, mad to talk…desirous of everything at the same time.” Days spent schooling my natural impatience into a watchfulness, letting time slow, focusing on the water flowing over impossibly miniature hands, fingers directing liquid soap to sink, wall, floor, anywhere but hands. Days of repeating my mom’s advice like a mantra: “Children don’t conform to adult schedules. Relax and enjoy what they’re teaching you.” Learning to appreciate the 30-minute walks to the park three blocks away, every twig examined, all utility covers petted, each sidewalk block full of beguiling and tangible curiosities. A summer of seeing in real-time the step, the leap, the green bud opening. The toddler bending, tottering, to examine the sun-fried earthworm on the sidewalk. Stopping myself from hurrying her or telling her not to touch it, I hear her say, with deep sadness, “Oh, poor yiddle snake!”
“I’m glad she’s dead.”
11 years was a long time, but I’d expected Dillon to sound like the same mellow boy who sat in class chewing his nails, unruffled when Ms. Zimmerman chastised him for occasional daydreaming.
Both present-day Dillon and the Ms. Zimmerman he described were strangers to me. Hostility radiated over the phone. He’d been the only one I’d been able to find on social media; maybe I should have looked harder for Lee or Dale.
“She was nice to you cause she was afraid you were gonna tell your parents. And she didn’t fuck with Lee cause she didn’t want to be called racist. But as soon as you two left the room...”
“What did she – she didn’t hit you, did she?”
“Ha. She wasn’t stupid. She was sadistic. Funny one minute and the next minute vicious. Jekyll and Hyde shit. She’d rip into us. She’d make me piss my pants. She’d keep it up UNTIL I did. She wanted me to, and then she’d rip into me for pissing myself.”
I tried to remember Dillon changing clothes mid-day but couldn’t. A different memory flashed, no longer than a blink, of Ms. Zimmerman, with a dead-eyed smile.
“Did you tell your parents? Or the other teachers?”
“Like they would have believed us. They were too busy kissing her ass, calling us geniuses. Gifted. Do you feel gifted, Antigua? Cause I sure as hell don’t.”
“I’m sorry. I never knew…”
“At least I didn’t turn out like Dale. At least she didn’t get me that bad.”
“What happened to Dale?”
We were treated like aliens. Like ageless, genderless, supernatural creatures.
There were four of us, two girls and two boys, assigned to Ms. Zimmerman’s class based on a test score. Thanks to that test, teachers talked to me about my future, not my future children. It wasn’t until I moved to a new school that I encountered teachers who believed my status of female cancelled out the promise of my IQ.
The teachers spoke to us with fear-soaked respect, as if we were capable of reading minds, of setting desks on fire with our eyes, or commanding whiteboard markers to attack.
Both more and less was expected of us. In the classroom: perfect answers, flawless work, any errors were greeted with surprise; the possibility that we didn’t know everything was unthinkable. The national test scores rolled in. 10th grade math levels, 11th grade reading levels, in 1st grade. No one doubted that we would write The Great American Novel by graduation, our brains would revitalize the state’s economy, we would change the world. But on the playground: in gym class, at recess, we were excused when we floundered, struggling to understand rules and steps that our peers, the ones who were stymied in the classroom by silent E’s, effortlessly mastered. We wanted to join in, to learn to move like our classmates, as confidently as dancers on the field. Don’t worry about it, we were told. You’re gifted.
We were like the children in that science fiction novel set in a British boarding school; children who were doomed but told by their teachers that their exceptional abilities would save them. Only to discover in the end that their abilities didn’t matter. Their gifts didn’t save them.
The same photo was on both sides, of a woman in bed, wearing only a comforter, pensive. On one side were the words, “I’m having an emotional breakdown” and on the other, “I’m having an emotional breakthrough.” A page I’d cut out of one of my Dad’s old Adbusters magazines, laminated and hung it from the ceiling. I tapped an edge and set it in motion, spinning slowly above my desk.
I batted the picture back and forth as I thought of the two Dillons. Detached, angry. Unflappable, bitter. Was Ms. Zimmerman responsible for the change? He might have turned out that way anyway.
How could we have such contradictory memories of Ms. Zimmerman? She’d saved us from fatal boredom, surely. We escaped to her classroom whenever we’d finished work in our regular classes. The books, the activities, the opportunity to be creative, the encouragement of our questions. How lucky we were.
What I said at the funeral should be my truth. My experience of Ms. Zimmerman, “an exceptional educator, brilliant, energetic.”
But…hadn’t I doubted my memory of her? There’d been a shadow when I talked to her daughter; I regretted agreeing to speak at the funeral. Wasn’t that why I called Dillon? And I believed him. Especially after contacting others from school, students in other classes who’d known Dillon and Dale.
No one said Dale had ended his life, or that Ms. Zimmerman was directly connected to his death. They said it was an accidental overdose. But they confirmed that Ms. Zimmerman had haunted Dale, the word “sadistic” came up again. They said it was possible that her abuse might have been why he’d started using.
I barely remembered Dale. He did work that was far beyond the rest of us. We’d suspected he was a genius. Now the photo twisted from a friendly Ms. Zimmerman to a cruel one. Jekyll and Hyde. Breakdown. Breakthrough.
“People aren’t honest at funerals.”
But if meaningful rituals don’t call for honesty, then what does?
“I would have described Ms. Zimmerman as…intense. Witty. I could imagine her being caustic. But you loved her class. It sounds like she was abusive, but I don’t think her funeral’s the place to bring that up.”
My mother was pragmatic. I went outside to find my father, who valued honesty over convention. Over politeness, my mother said.
“I get what you’re saying, but you always liked her, didn’t you? Your feelings about her are, at worse, complicated. Honey, sometimes you have to choose your battles.”
I changed the subject to tell him the latest preschool news.
“This Brenda has really gotten to you.”
“Not only me. Everyone complains about her.”
“Yeah, but most people complain to vent or make conversation. You complain while you plan to take action because you’re a problem solver, but is anyone asking you to solve the problem? Have the parents complained?”
“She treats the children completely differently in front of the parents.”
“You’re worrying about something that’s out of your control. Are you bored? Why don’t you come help us in the shop next week? Mr. Nauman’s been asking about you. Come argue politics with him.”
If we believe significant events don’t call for honesty, and daily injustices don’t call for action, then when do we stand up for what we believe in?
“It’s just a summer job. You’re not there to save the world.”
Abby was 5. She was gregarious, quick, cheerful. On Monday she came to school with circles under her eyes. She clung to me and Leanne, sitting on our laps, not letting go when we stood up, shadowing us on the playground. She was clearly suffering, but she hid her face in my neck when I asked what was wrong. At nap time she knocked over crates, hummed loudly, spilled blocks, woke up the light sleepers.
Leanne approached me and Brenda after Abby’s dad picked her up. “Her mom moved out. Apparently they had a big fight; it sounds like it might have been violent.”
Brenda rolled her eyes. “Half the kids here have divorced parents. That’s no excuse for her acting up.”
Abby disrupted nap time for the rest of the week, immune to Brenda’s anger. None of Brenda’s usual punishments worked: no snacks, afternoons spent in the time-out chair. I followed Leanne’s lead, waiting until Brenda left to comfort Abby and release her from time-out. It galled me that Leanne was being so passive, I was ashamed of myself for feeling pressured to stay quiet. Weren’t we paid to take care of children?
“I know I should say something, but I just freeze when she gets angry.” Leanne was nonconfrontational, and Brenda was frightening, a bully who’d been emboldened by never being challenged. “I’ll ask Rachel if she can schedule Brenda in another room next week.”
It was a temporary solution, but better than nothing.
Ms. Zimmerman’s funeral was in a week. I’d gone over the scenarios in my mind and none of them seemed right. Give a speech about how grateful I was for her teaching, let the mourners believe she’d been all-good? Fall in line with tradition, support the belief that it’s bad manners to criticize the dead? Shakespeare had it wrong. It’s the evil that’s oft interred with the bones.
I couldn’t do it. I’d feel dishonest.
I could describe her teaching methods, her support for our autonomy, our nonconformity. I could say that she would have wanted me to speak honestly at her funeral. But how would I segue into her—what would I call it? Verbal abuse? Bullying? Was it even my place to say something?
What if I attended but didn’t give a speech? Could I sit through the speeches, hope that someone else brought it up? I hated that an event intended to commemorate and summarize someone’s legacy on earth would be incomplete, dishonest for the sake of convention.
When I died, I hoped people weren’t so conflicted about my eulogy.
Maybe I could speak. Talk about Mrs. Zimmerman’s legacy, how she’d influenced me. Who I was, who I wanted to be. Who I didn’t want to be.
Or don’t speak. Don’t attend. But commemorate her life by viewing it as a warning, see her legacy as a call to action.
Leanne and I prepared art materials against a backdrop of soft snores. Each afternoon that week, Leanne told Abby that if she lay quietly until the other children fell asleep, she could do a quiet activity while they slept. Now Abby sat on her bag, working on a puzzle, occasionally approaching us for a hug, letting us murmur encouragement into her hair. The sorrow was lighter on her features, she’d spent less time on my lap and more time playing this week.
The door to the toddler room swung open and Brenda entered, her eyes shooting to the corner. She dropped her papers onto the table and speed-walked past us to Abby. “We do not play during nap time!” She wrenched the puzzle box from Abby, who started to wail.
Leanne’s hand froze mid-air, holding a pair of scissors.
My father told me: when faced with a daunting task, think ahead to the future when the task was completed. I saw myself at college, writing about imperialism, dictators, coups d’état, looking back on what I did today. I pushed myself away from the table and stood up, a long rise, from the child-sized chair.
Brenda was snapping at Abby to stop crying, bobbing up and down to snatch puzzle pieces from her sleeping bag. A few children groaned and twisted in their bags, half-awakened, zippers sliding.
I pictured myself holding the puzzle box before I took it out of Brenda’s hand, then I crouched next to Abby, placed the box next to her, forced my voice to be slow and steady. “Abby, it’s ok. We told you to pick out a puzzle.”
I sat with her on the bag and didn’t look up at Brenda, though I could see her feet, unmoving, out of the corner of my eye. I sifted the contents of the box to find the still-interlocked pieces and didn’t raise my head when Brenda’s feet moved and I heard her leave the room, her steps making the chairs rattle against the table. For a long moment, I helped Abby piece the puzzle together again, rubbing her hair, her back, until she stopped crying.