Lucky for Me, the Kindergarteners Are Running the Show
The following story was selected by National Book Award winner Susan Choi as the runner-up of The Academy for Teachers “Stories Out of School” 2020flash fiction contest. (Read the winner here.) Choi calls it “a story of insiders and outsiders; of know-alls (five-year-old Jacqueline Lopez) and know-nothings (the Sub); of immigration-policy-enforcement agents, and a vulnerable undocumented family; of those able to offer kindness and those who most need it.”
1-2-3 eyes on me and 48 eyeballs, 49 if you count Pumpkin the one-eyed hamster’s, look up. They used to belong to Mrs. Haskell, but this Monday, at Sam Houston Elementary, and maybe until Mrs. Haskell’s clavicle heals, they are mine.
8:10 am Only Jaqueline Lopez knows where the attendance sheet is. Only Jaqueline Lopez knows how to fill it out. (She’s five.)
8:20 am The nurse walks Camilla Martínez in late with a skinned knee. Abby Porter says Gross I hate blood.
9:00 am Oliver Holland barfs on his worksheet while we are working on the letter “V.” Abby Porter says “V” is for Vomit Face.
9:45 am The room smells like throw-up and feet but I can’t open a window during instructional time. District policy.
9:50 am An aide named Eddie enters unannounced and hands me a pink slip of paper and leaves with three students. Abby Porter says they are special kids.
10:30 am Only Jaqueline Lopez knows who “buys” and who “brings” (is there a binder somewhere?) and only Jaqueline Lopez knows which Olivia has a nut allergy (did I miss a form?)
12:00 pm I let them out for lunch but Teddy Watkins says Eddie is supposed to do that and Abby Porter says maybe I am not very smart.
12:35 pm I confuse the Olivias again and Abby Porter says subs are not as smart as real teachers.
1:05 pm Eddie opens the door and walks them to art and I sneak a cigarette, against district policy, in the teacher’s parking lot with the cafeteria ladies before I cut out flash cards with kiddie scissors that blister my fingers.
1:35 pm Eddie brings the class back and Abby Porter says she smells “cee-gar-ettes” and it sure does smell like her dirty Uncle Ted’s house. The kids chant “Dirty Uncle Ted! Dirty Uncle Ted!”
1:50 pm The glorious bell rings and tomorrow I will quit. Smoking and the job too.
But the next morning Abby brings a ripped duffel bag to class and says she spends Tuesdays at her Dad’s where it is loud and she gets scared. She keeps her head down in reading circle and uses the bathroom a lot.
At pickup, I hold her hand and tell her father that Abby was a delight. I memorize his license plate number.
On Wednesday, Abby returns and Oliver is back too. But Camilla is absent and Principal Williams calls me into his color-coded chart and file-folder swamp of an office: Custody. IEP. CPS. Allergies. ESL. Immigration. The labels and stickies and papers flutter in his pedestal fan’s line of fire.
Mrs. Martínez is detained at her night job, he tells me, and he plucks a file from one tall stack and puts it on another. Five kids, fourteen years, Honduras and a facility near Corpus are the words that he says and “Corpus is like three hours away,” is what I think I say back and a lump forms in my throat that aches and swells for the rest of the day.
On Thursday, Camilla is absent again and Pumpkin gets loose and there is a new kid from a foster home with sensory issues.
He pee-peed in the reading area once, Abby whispers to me. She had blamed it on Pumpkin and walked him to the nurse’s office. I tell Abby she is a good friend. Kind and caring.
When they go to music, I cry at my desk in the little room that smells like urine and hamster and vomit and feet.
Pumpkin watches me from behind bars. 1-2, eye on you, Pumpkin.
On Friday, the foster kid is gone but Camilla is back and her father gives me a note that says “Camilla reads much and her favorite color is purple. Please take care of her.” I wipe more hot tears off my face and turn my back to the class.
Later, Abby tells me I am pretty and that sometimes she cries too.
By Friday afternoon, I can tell the Olivias apart and at pickup, Mr. Martìnez brings me tamales wrapped in foil. I stay late to clean up Pumpkin’s cage and sharpen pencils and put smiley-face stickers on worksheets about the letter “V.”
Principal Williams pops his head in. “Will I see you Monday?” he asks.
Teachers have one of the most fascinating, difficult, and important jobs on the planet, and their work days are filled with stories. Yet teachers seldom appear in fiction. This annual contest was created by The Academy for Teachers, which seeks to raise respect for the teaching profession. There were two criteria for submissions: that the story’s protagonist or its narrator be a teacher, and that the story be between 6 and 749 words long.