fiction by Rebecca Makkai
Maggie assumed it was her fault: that if she’d gotten there a minute earlier, she’d have seen him waggle his stumps, seen him fall eerily still, and she could have knocked on his shell and startled him back to life.
She’d been distracted that morning by Jenna Gupta waiting at the classroom door, by wondering who’d let her into the building. Jenna stood in a puddle of melted snow, hands in the pockets of her puffy purple coat. There went Mr. Gupta, disappearing around the corner.
Jenna waited for Maggie to unlock the room. She said, “I had to get here early so no one would hide my colored pencils.”
Every other morning that year, Maggie had put her bag on the desk and looked right away through the glass, past the brown grime and algae the children could never quite scrape off. And if Kirby wasn’t swimming around, if he was on the rocks, she’d wait to see his shell rise and fall.
This was 1984. It was her first year of teaching, although she was twenty-eight. She had to remind herself, years later: that she’d been nearly thirty, that she’d worked six years at the newspaper. Because that year, in retrospect, seemed like the first year ever.
Jenna hung her coat and took a pink rhyme sheet from Maggie’s desk. She sat silently, her fingers tight on her pencil, her tongue caught in her lips.
It was the first two boys in the classroom at 8:25 who started tapping the glass of the cage. “Kirby’s dead!” one of them shouted—later she couldn’t remember who it was, though she was sure Michael Curtis had been in the class that year, and he’d have been the type to shout, the type for drama. “He’s like this,” Michael said, let’s say it was Michael, lolling his tongue out and choking himself. Of course the turtle didn’t look like that, like a hanged man, but Maggie saw that he was, unambiguously, deceased. He was up on the rocks, his skin dryer and browner than usual, the tilt of his triangular head too extreme for resting.
She wished she’d known all along what a dead turtle looked like. It would have saved her so much worry. She walked toward the tank and pulled the boys gently away. As if she were protecting them from it, even though they didn’t mind at all and she was the one who wanted to run from the room.
“He looks peaceful,” Jenna said. He didn’t. Jenna must have heard the phrase in a movie.
Maggie covered the tank with a white sheet left over from Roman togas. One at a time her students stomped in, snow and slush and blood-rushed cheeks, and one at a time they spotted the covered tank, saw Maggie with her finger to her lips, and slipped quietly into their seats.
It was one of many moments when she looked out at their faces and felt she was inventing her job for the first time. That what she did next had nothing to do with her training or anyone else’s, and no bearing on the day’s lesson plans, but that it was essential to get right. Gladys Ray, the principal, had given her two pat pieces of advice during staff prep week: “Don’t smile till Christmas” was the first, something Maggie had gladly discarded within her first ten minutes in the classroom. The second, meant to be encouraging but really terribly disheartening, was “Your only real job is to keep them alive.”
If someone had died on her watch at least it was a reptile, and an ancient one at that. The selfish part of her had hoped he would die over Christmas break, that she’d come back to a note from the janitor and an empty, glistening tank. Kirby was forty-two years old, inherited from Mrs. George when she retired last spring, and not entirely legal. Maggie had sat with Mrs. George in the classroom in early August, and Mrs. George—her hair was so white, her eyes were so blue—had told her to hide the whole tank when anyone official came through. “It’s the salmonella,” she said. “Soon they won’t let you have an animal at all.” Maggie wanted to beg Mrs. George to take the turtle with her to Florida, but she also wanted to look competent, wanted this woman to believe there would be some continuity, that Maggie wouldn’t just throw out all the outdated wall maps (she would), that she wouldn’t discontinue the class traditions—the lost tooth chart, the balloon contest, the buddy patrol (well, she wouldn’t yet, but one by one, over the years, till it was her classroom fully, till no one remembered Mrs. George but some of the children’s parents, the ones who’d had her themselves). And so she’d looked over at the slimy glass, at the turtle, its shell flaking in a way that reminded her of unhealthy toenails, its yellow-striped head angling slowly around, and promised she’d hide him from the superintendent, promised she’d make the children wear rubber gloves when they changed his water.
That morning, by the time the last ones, the bus-missers, shuffled in with uncombed hair and pink eyes, the boys had already spread the word. She didn’t have an announcement to make after all.
One of them—it must have been Calvin Stone, because who else would ask such a thing—raised his hand and said, “Who killed him?”
“Nobody did. He was just very, very old. He was even older than me.”
“But you’re not old!”
She realized she had to get Kirby out of the classroom or the day would be lost. The proper thing was probably to call Animal Control, but that might get the school in trouble. She would have sent two children for the janitor—he’d disposed of her snails that fall—but she knew he was out salting the sidewalks, and she couldn’t stand the way he looked when she asked him favors, even small ones. Everything seemed to pain him tremendously, to be the final insult in a fifty-year job. She didn’t want him in the back of the room sighing and scrubbing as she did Poetry Time.
“We’re going to have the funeral now,” she said.
And she sent two boys to the janitor after all, though only for a shovel, and she had them all get their coats back on. She asked who wanted to put Kirby in a plastic bag, and chose, from the sea of hands, Jenna Gupta and another girl. Jenna was a child she liked to call on when a proper answer was not required, when the question was “Who can open a window?” or “What shall we tackle first, multiplication or Spanish?” Not because Jenna wasn’t bright, but because she could derail a lesson plan faster than anyone. As soon as she had the floor she’d suddenly need to sharpen her pencil fifteen times while everyone waited, or she’d write a swear on her paper and then raise her hand to complain that someone had written a swear on her paper.
Maggie had grown concerned about Jenna in the first weeks of school, when Jenna had stapled through her thumb not once but three separate times, each prompting a nurse visit. And each time Jenna had feigned wide-eyed bewilderment that the stapler had misfired. Maggie remembered something then, from her first aid training: sixty percent of children who poison themselves by accident will do it again on purpose. It had seemed an unbelievable statistic back in June, but now that she was in the classroom she believed it fully, and she locked the stapler in her own desk drawer. By that point, though, Jenna had moved on to swallowing erasers, to hiding her notebooks in other children’s desks and claiming they’d stolen them, to piercing her own ears with a paperclip. Maggie had gone to talk to Gladys Ray, who’d cut her off and said, “Oh, you’ll think they’re all troubled and extraordinary your first year. Everything will come to seem normal, trust me. In five years, you’ll have seen it all.” But it wasn’t true. In a thirty-year career, she wouldn’t ever meet a child quite like Jenna again, one so hell-bent on self-destruction, both social and physical.
They all watched as Jenna lifted the turtle with her latex gloves and dropped him into the plastic Walgreens bag the other girl held out. Kirby had gone in upside-down, and Maggie could see the curve of his shell at the bottom of the bag.
They trooped to the far side of the lawn, behind the playground where the kindergartners were already climbing. There was fluffy snow, but the ground underneath was still soft enough to dig. They took turns with the shovel until they’d hollowed out a cubic foot of grave.
She told Jenna she could put the bag in, and Jenna said, “Plastic pollutes the earth.” So did a salmonella-infected turtle, most likely, but Maggie let her shake the bag by its bottom corners till Kirby slid out and landed head down, as if digging the tunnel himself.
They filled the hole, patted the earth and snow with their mittens, and stood in a circle. “Now we can all say something nice about Kirby,” Maggie said, which seemed like how the grade school pet funeral ought to proceed, or at least how she remembered them from her own childhood, the buried salamanders, the hamster that might only have been hibernating. “I’ll start. Kirby was a yellow-bellied slider. He had an amusing personality, and I will always remember how he watched us eat cupcakes when we had birthdays.” She turned to her left.
“Sometimes he didn’t smell so good.”
“That’s true, and let’s say nice things. Melanie?”
Yes, Melanie Barnes was in the class that same year as Jenna, she was sure, because Melanie was the one whose headgear Jenna had pulled straight out of her mouth in the lunch room, the one whose mother she’d had to call and calm down, even though she hadn’t seen it happen, hadn’t the slightest clue what had occurred. She remembered trying not to use Jenna’s name. “There’s a child in our class who’s having a difficult year,” she’d said.
“Well,” Mrs. Barnes had said, “don’t we all know who that is, and if she doesn’t turn out like her mother it’ll be the Lord’s own miracle.”
The phrase stuck in Maggie’s head: as if Jenna Gupta were beyond all human intervention.
Her mother, Jenna’s mother—that was a story. Or so everyone implied, though Maggie could never be sure what the story was. Unless the story was simply that she’d married an Indian man, which to be sure was unusual in 1984 Minnesota, but not terribly scandalous. Susan Gupta was a slight woman with a voice so soft it was hard not to insist she speak up. She was the one who’d been raised in the town, the one who’d attended the school—almost all the students had a parent or two who’d gone there, something that would not be true by the end of Maggie’s career—and Maggie assumed the head-shaking, the knowing asides, the whispers that Jenna’s transgressions ran somehow parallel to her mother’s, had to do with the town’s shared memory bank. Susan Gupta. Maggie could almost hear quotation marks around the woman’s last name, the way the other mothers said it, the way Gladys Ray said it. Susan Cleary, they still called her half the time. You know how Susan Cleary was.
Except that Maggie didn’t. But she did have her own information, knowledge she assumed was hers alone. In early October, she’d been at the grocery store, shivering at the end of the dairy case, when she recognized Susan Gupta from Parents’ Night. She stepped back with her cart, beyond the corner of the pizza freezer, not wanting the small talk, not wanting to risk an impromptu parent conference. She saw Susan open a carton of eggs and turn each one with her fingertips, checking for cracks. Maggie was mesmerized by the slow, almost sensual way she touched them. Susan looked left and right, but apparently didn’t see Maggie. She took one egg and, her faint smile never changing, cracked it on the shelf. Then she let the yolk and white ooze into the Styrofoam capsule that had held the egg. She crumbled the shell in her fist and sprinkled it on top. She did the same with two more eggs, glancing around each time. By now Maggie had retreated fully, was watching only the reflection in the orange juice case at the aisle’s end. Susan lifted the whole carton to eye level as if inspecting a work of art, then closed the lid and put it back on the shelf with the other cartons. Maggie might have grabbed it herself if she hadn’t seen what she’d seen, if she’d been in too much of a hurry to open the lid. Her groceries would have been ruined, as now someone else’s would be. She waited till Susan had rounded the corner, then picked up the carton and carried it level, the whites leaking onto her hands, to the man watering the produce. She said, “I think there’s a problem here,” and vanished before he could see the misplaced embarrassment on her own face.
Surely that wasn’t “the story,” the sad story of Susan Gupta. She couldn’t just be the town egg breaker. But yes, something was the matter.
Back in the classroom, the children had no focus, wouldn’t stop raising their hands to talk about death: dead dogs, dead grandparents, how someone’s babysitter died in a car crash, how someone’s aunt had a seizure. Michael Curtis said, “Mostly everybody dies by getting shot.”
“That’s on TV,” she said. “That’s just on TV.”
The only thing she could think to do was turn the talk to animals. And so she told them that chickens caught in a tornado will sometimes end up alive but fully plucked. She told them that when a starfish loses an arm it grows another, which they knew, but that the arm also grows a new starfish, which they didn’t know. She told them about sea cucumbers, who eject their organs to distract predators. Then they grow new organs.
She’d always been a collector of animal eccentricities, of historical curiosities and strange facts about food and the chemical elements, and this was part of her motivation in becoming a teacher—she wanted someone to share these things with. Only now she found herself collecting facts and secrets of a different kind, ones she could never tell anyone. There was the single father who broke down crying at the fall conference, telling how his classmates had once opened his bologna sandwich and smeared it in the dirt. There was the mother who openly referred to her husband’s affair, right in front of him, right there over the math portfolio. There was the man who couldn’t stop shaking, just from stepping back into a classroom. And Susan the egg breaker, of course, Susan the vandal. Maggie didn’t want to know any of it.
Melanie had raised her hand. “Miss Petroski?” she said. “Jenna’s eating the turtle food.”
Jenna held a dark green pellet in her fingers. Even with Maggie looking, even with the whole class now looking, she popped it between her lips. “It’s my vitamin,” she said. “From home.”
When the class was at gym, Maggie went in the lounge and put her forehead on the table. Helen Larson looked up from her crossword and her yogurt. She said, “January’s like that. February will be worse.”
“My turtle died.”
Helen clucked and put her pencil behind her ear. She was five feet tall, but could silence a hallway by clearing her throat. “I think he was our senior faculty member! Oh, don’t feel bad.”
“I have extra newts, if you’d like.”
Really Maggie didn’t want anything else in the classroom, anything else that might die or give her nightmares. She didn’t want to walk in every day praying not to find them desiccated in the corner. The land snails had been a great failure this fall, or rather an unfortunate success. She’d foolishly bought two, and within the month the walls of the tank were covered with babies the size of dot candy. She wasn’t supposed to release them, the pet store man had made that clear. Even after she sent every child home with one snail in a jar full of lettuce there were still dozens, and so she’d asked the janitor to dispose of the rest. “Make them an offer they can’t refuse,” she said. This was back in November, when she thought she had a chance of making him smile, of winning him over. He’d looked her up and down with watery eyes and said, as if it devastated him, “Certainly.” And the next morning they were gone, tank and all.
“Well,” Helen said now, “that thing was diseased.”
Did Maggie, in this moment, ask Helen Larson’s advice about Jenna Gupta? Looking back she’d like to imagine she did, that she was thinking of Jenna that day, not just of herself, not just of the turtle cleanup. This might have been the day she asked Helen why a child would want to hurt herself, the day Helen said, “Well, the boys do it all the time. Look at them throwing themselves off the monkey bars. Everything boys do, girls do quieter.” Or was that years later, after all? Was it not Jenna they were talking about but some other problematic child—Sophie Brahm or Allie Andersen—from those first few years? They blended together. Not the students, but the years. Early on, her teaching nightmares—every night of August, without fail—were about losing control of her class, and they ended with her standing on her desk and screaming, just as Gladys Ray walked in. But the class was an amorphous mass. As time went on, the dream would select children from over the years: Sophie and Jenna and Martin Hasselton and Laker Jones, young enough to be Jenna’s son, and Keith, that boy Keith who’d come for one week and created such havoc she was dealing for the rest of the year with the words he’d taught them. All these children together as if they were contemporaries, the class she’d be sentenced to teach in hell. Some of them, she knew, had turned out wonderfully. Martin Hasselton wound up as the chef at the tapas place, and always came out from the kitchen and told the waiter to give “Miss Petroski” and her friend as much sangria as they wanted, and kissed her cheek and showed her pictures of his daughters on his phone. But in her dreams he was trapped at eight, jumping on chairs and throwing things. Erasers, turtles, life preservers.
Well, she either asked Helen Larson or she didn’t. One thing she never did: she never told anyone about Susan Gupta and the eggs. She couldn’t say exactly why, except that it had to do with the intimacy of Susan’s movements, with the fact she’d thought no one was looking.
After gym they were even noisier. They were giggling about Jenna, about her turtle germs, and someone said that turtle food was made of fish poop, that Jenna had eaten fish poop, that Jenna ate fish poop every day, and this was why the turtle had died—she’d stolen all his food. Jenna didn’t react, just glared up through dark lashes. She was a beautiful child. Black hair, smooth olive skin, her eyes improbably green—what might be a dull shade of hazel on any Swedish-Minnesotan child, but startlingly light on a girl named Gupta. Maggie would learn over the years that the pretty ones were almost universally reviled, that Jenna wouldn’t have stood much of a chance even if she’d acted normally, even if she hadn’t sucked on rubber bands or latched on to other girls and followed them around till their mothers called Gladys Ray.
She refocused the class by telling them about sea squirts: the way the polyps wander the seas till they find a suitable rock, then settle down and become sessile (she wrote the word on the board) and—because they never need to move again—ingest their own brains.
The day was over and Maggie was disconcerted by how empty the classroom felt. Even on weekends when she came in to finish projects, or on the last day of a break when she went in to prep, there had been the crunch of gravel under Kirby’s feet, or at least the potential for that crunch, and the buzz of his heat lamp. His slitty little eyes, watching her work.
Michael Curtis’s mother, at her October conference, had walked into the room and gone straight to the turtle. “Unbelievable,” she said. “It’s really him.” She had been in Mrs. George’s class herself, twenty-five years ago. “Honey,” she said to her bemused husband, “I think he remembers me. Look at him! Look how he’s turning his head!”
Staring at the tank, the way the afternoon sunlight prismed through the glass, Maggie realized that tonight, for the first time in forty years, the classroom would be void of any living thing larger than a bug.
Mr. and Mrs. Gupta had come in for separate conferences in the fall. They’d asked if they could, scheduling was difficult, and Maggie had agreed only because she hoped this meant Mr. Gupta would open up to her in some way about his wife, whose egg-breaking Maggie had witnessed just two weeks earlier. But when he arrived she could see that wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t what she’d expected, first of all. A British accent, a long, expensive wool coat, wavy hair tucked behind his ears. From everything the other teachers had said, from what she’d inferred from the parents, she’d imagined Randeep Gupta to be an angry little man, maybe one who controlled his wife or one half-crazy himself. Whatever she pictured, it wasn’t this beautiful person who held the handshake a moment too long, who leaned toward her over the table. She showed him Jenna’s math, and he looked up and said, “Are these boys old enough to be in love with their teacher yet? Or too old?”
She was flattered for a day or two, until she managed to wonder if this wasn’t the “story” after all of Susan Gupta—if Randeep wasn’t seducing every woman in town, leaving Susan to avenge herself in the dairy aisle. Or maybe all these women were simply smitten with him, and had decided to hate Susan because each woman thought she stood a chance. (Her favorite animal fact that she’d never be able to share with children: the only species that’s been proven monogamous under all circumstances is a tapeworm that lives in the intestines of fish. This is because after mating, the bodies of the male and female fuse together forever.)
Regardless, she hadn’t said a word about Susan’s mental health. She told him, instead, that other children were “concerned by Jenna’s habits.” Three years later, she’d have done this all better. She’d have documented everything, and it would have been their fifth conversation, not their first. She’d have insisted on getting Jenna evaluated. She’d have started the conference by asking how Jenna was at home, asking if they had any struggles with her. (Surely they did.) She wouldn’t have choked on her words.
Randeep Gupta had smiled and nodded. “She’s gifted. I was like that myself, always more interested in the teacher than in the other students.”
She’d been flummoxed enough to agree, and soon the conference was over, but Maggie was set to meet with Susan the next day, and she figured this was the better moment, anyway, to bring up the specifics. She would start with the stapler incident, the only one Susan already knew about.
But then Susan had come in looking off-balance. She wore extremely high heels on her tiny feet, and heavy hoop earrings, so that Maggie worried the earrings might literally topple her. But there was something else to it, something more to her fragility than her wardrobe choices. Her eyes were red, and the skin under them looked like it might rip if someone touched it. Susan stared at Jenna’s work and made little mewing noises, and asked, in a whisper, if Jenna had any friends. It was the perfect opening, except that it was too terrible a way to start. Because the answer was no, and what could be worse than that? Maggie had said, “There’s not much social time in the room. She might try inviting someone over to play.” And Susan had nodded noncommittally, and that was it. That was all Maggie had in her.
She’d gone to Gladys Ray again and told her about Jenna tearing pages out of Where the Sidewalk Ends and Gladys had said, “You know they can smell weakness. Like dogs.”
Now, in the empty classroom, Maggie wondered what more she might do. But it was nearly February, and there were breaks coming, and then the year would be done. Helen Larson had said that to her: “Once you get through the winter, all you’re doing is waiting for it to be someone else’s problem.” But that didn’t sound right. Maybe it was how Helen got through her days, but to Maggie it just made everything worse. The thought that she might hand a child off, unchanged, to the next teacher. It was like playing Hot Potato, just hoping the music didn’t stop—hoping the problem didn’t become a problem—when it was your turn.
Today might be a good day to call the Guptas: “You need to know that Jenna has ingested some turtle food …” But they wouldn’t be home right now, at four in the afternoon. Jenna was a latchkey kid, which was of course the subject of much scrutiny by the other parents. (“She’s completely unattended,” Melanie Barnes’s mother had said, after the headgear incident. “You know he stays at hotels in the Twin Cities three nights a week. While she, while Susan—And meanwhile, that child feeds herself Chef Boyardee out of a can.”) Maggie drove by Jenna’s house once, having copied the address from her file. A large house, an overgrown lawn, a child’s blue bicycle against the porch. What had she been looking for?
Right now there were more pressing matters. The janitor would still be around mopping the floors and emptying garbage, and she went to see if he could move the tank. The longer it sat empty, the more the children would beg for a replacement animal. He wasn’t near his closet in the south hallway, but the door was ajar and the light was on, and sometimes he rested in there on a folding chair reading a magazine. She looked. No janitor, but she spotted, on the back shelves, a row of assorted glass jars plus her snail tank from the fall. Stepping closer she saw, sticking to the glass of the tank, the tan undersides of two moist, living snails. There were more down on the dirt, and more on a large carrot in the middle. The glass jars were filled with dime-sized snails. These were the babies, nearly grown and ready to spawn a new generation. So this was the offer they couldn’t refuse—the chance to live in the dark with the mop buckets, to gnaw on lunch scraps. She stood gaping. Up above were some of the same spider plants that had been multiplying out of control in Dave Klein’s room that fall, only they were limp and almost white now from lack of sun. The slender leaves drooped toward the door, where they must have sensed a constant crack of light. Beside the snails, in what was once a peanut butter jar, a little striped fish swam in frantic circles. Someone else’s forgotten aquarium bully, presumed flushed.
She might have felt betrayed, her wishes so flagrantly ignored; or she might have felt mistrusted, she a first-year teacher, he a veteran who knew better; or concerned that the man was deranged; but what she actually felt was horrible guilt. That someone else knew how to keep things alive when she did not. That all along the creatures she’d tried to murder, the things she’d assumed were dead, were here pulsing away in the heart of the school.
Maggie went back to her room and straightened things. There was the tank, the food bowl still full in the corner. Kirby’s heat lamp was on, thanks to the timer, and she unplugged it. And here were the empty desks, the papers and books and glue sticks preventing a few from closing all the way. It was like a museum exhibit: American Classroom, 1984.
She opened all the desks in the back row and sifted through. It was something Helen Larson had advised her to do whenever she had a moment. “You’d be amazed what you’ll find,” Helen said. And she always was. Here were fifteen pencil erasers, neatly glued in place, like a little army. A Hershey’s Kiss. A cootie catcher. A tightly folded note (If you couph three times, it meens you want to kiss Blake). Scratched into the lid of one desk: Bethany R. There was no Bethany in the class, and the carving looked old. Had Bethany done it herself, or had someone loved Bethany?
Back at her own desk, idly curious, she flipped through the attendance book. It held two hundred pages, each covering a month, with just a few pages left, and so the records went back 15 years into Mrs. George’s class, back to November of 1969. There were a few notes in Mrs. George’s light hand: “Fifth absence this fall!” and “Came to school w/out shoes.” There, in 1972, was Bethany Ridgeway. But there was nothing to be learned from Mrs. George’s neat, confident checkmarks. One mark a day for a school year, ending in June. And then another set of names, the same handwriting, the same blue pen. As if Mrs. George hadn’t even blinked. Twenty children out, twenty children in.
Maggie grabbed her bag and the homework and headed out the front door. Across the yard, on the far side of the chain link fence, right across from where they’d buried Kirby, stood a child with a purple coat and a blue bicycle. Jenna. When she saw Maggie, she let her bike fall and sped off on foot down the sidewalk. Maggie crossed the yard to see if Jenna had been doing something strange. But it was just her bike lying there, the wheel spinning, and a moment later Jenna came trotting back around the corner, clearly terrified. She slowed her pace and seemed to steel herself before she approached the fence. She said, “Umm, Miss Petroski?”
“Michael’s probably going to tell you something tomorrow, because he said he might. And it’s not true.”
“Oh.” Maggie wished they weren’t staring at each other through chain link. It didn’t seem ideal.
“When we were cleaning the tank? Yesterday? Because Michael had the spray, not me. I was supposed to do the water.”
“Okay, and what happened?”
“The thing is Michael’s probably going to say that I poured Windex into Kirby’s water bowl.”
Maggie studied her face. It was unreadable, as usual.
“Is that what happened?”
“But the thing is that Michael is always mean to me.”
“You’ve mentioned that.”
“He said I buy clothes at Kmart.”
“Jenna, what about the Windex?”
“Because what happened was he dared me to.”
“Okay.” She tried to keep her own expression neutral. “But he didn’t make you do it.”
“And also, I’ve never told you, and no one’s ever told you, but Michael always calls me a spaz, and he stole my shoe in gym.”
“Jenna, I appreciate your honesty about pouring the Windex. Kirby was old, but it’s important that I know what really happened.”
“That’s why I got to school early.” Jenna looked terribly earnest now, although it was hard to be sure. “I told my dad I forgot my math sheets, but really it was because I wanted to tell you. But when I saw Kirby I knew right away he was dead. So I didn’t say.”
“Well, if that’s true, I appreciate it.”
“And Miss Petroski?”
“No one would ever tell you this, but sometimes when you aren’t listening Michael says you’re fat.”
“Okay. You and I will talk tomorrow, Jenna.”
“But if you tell my mom and dad they’ll probably send me to another school.” She said it like a threat, as if Maggie would think this was the worst thing in the world—a child taken away from her.
“You’ve been very brave, and I’ll keep this a secret between us.”
Jenna said, “Okay then, well, good.” She got on her bike and zigzagged away.
But in the very moment that Maggie promised not to tell, she knew this was exactly what she had to do. It would get Gladys Ray’s ear, finally. It would be something to tell a psychologist. It would get Mr. and Mrs. Gupta’s attention, and perhaps even change things. Maybe he wouldn’t stay in the cities as often, maybe they’d hire a babysitter, maybe Susan herself would get some help. Well, probably not—but it was still a start.
It would be a betrayal, certainly. What would that do to a child, confessing as much as she could to a trusted teacher only to have the teacher turn her in? Maggie thought of the sea cucumber, sacrificing its heart, its guts, in order to survive. Only it wasn’t her own heart she was offering, and that made it so much worse.
But this was the best thing to do. This was the only thing to do. And surely Jenna would grow a new heart.
She walked back into the building, and she walked to the office, and she picked up the rolodex, and she picked up the phone.
It was the story Maggie told her youngest colleagues on occasion, the one she told at her own retirement party, just a bit tipsy, though even then, even thirty years later, she left out the names. Who knew but that Jenna Gupta was someone’s cousin, wasn’t by now someone’s gynecologist or lawyer.
The Guptas moved after another year, but the call worked, or it did eventually, after a meeting that Susan Gupta left in tears, after Jenna ignored Maggie for weeks, her forehead on her desk. They got her to the school counselor, who got her to another counselor. Maggie herself never saw a change, but that wasn’t the point. And she was certain Jenna remembered her still, years later, as the teacher who’d ruined her life, the one who’d turned her in. That wasn’t the point either, although it was the point of the story, as Maggie wound up telling it. She’d say, “The thing is, it doesn’t matter if they hate you forever.”
The other teaching nightmare, distinct from the screaming-on-the-desk one: you walk into your room and see the children, and realize you forgot to teach them. There’s Melanie Barnes, and you haven’t seen her in so long—she’s been there all year waiting for you. And Tyler Benchley, and Kiki Short, and Doug Farr, and Michael Curtis, and Eleanor East, and Jenna Gupta. It’s the last day of school, and you can only do so much. You try to make one math worksheet that covers everything, and you show them a map of Europe and set up, frantically, a science experiment.
When you awake in your own sweat, you’re terribly relieved. That these children are long grown, that you have nothing to worry about, that years and years ago you did all you could.
(Though there must have been more you could do, or why would you have this dream? What did you forget?)
Whenever the first-year teachers came in the break room crying, she’d think of how she’d been that year, how earnest, how strangely selfish. How she must have looked to Gladys Ray, who had no idea if she’d last. How she must have looked to that janitor.
If they sat down, if they seemed to want her to talk, Maggie would glance from her crossword. Just keep them alive, she’d say. Just keep them alive. This job isn’t what you think it is.
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