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I gazed into the pages of my textbook with my chin in my palms. Black ink melted into a fog of gray paragraphs. A flat voice mumbled through sentences while my thoughts drifted to the football field. I breathed the earthy smells of grass and dirt as we stretched before drills. The whistle chirped and we crashed to the ground in unison. The evening dwindled and the fireflies sparked in the dusk. We took to the fence, griping and grousing in between pants. The wind rattled in my ears as I chased Benny, the back of his shirt rippling with his strides. His cleats clawed the grass as his steps just out of my arm’s reach.
“Sam?” Ms. Tipton’s voice interrupted my chase.
“Could you read the next paragraph for us?”
I looked down, lost in the exploits of Judy Blume’s latest. Ollie whispered where he had left off. With the class waiting, I took a breath and hurried into a sentence, my voice quivering as I faltered. I started again. The simple words became complex tongue twisters. A cavalcade of panic ran down my back as I stammered along, wiping my forehead and feeling the stares of the classroom burning into neck as my face flooded with heat.
“Take your time Sam, just take a breath and start slow.” Ms. Tipton encouraged, her voice easy and pleasant.
I stumbled into syllables, making headway as I plowed through choppy sentences in tangled knots of garble. I had read every one of the football books in the library, having no trouble in the privacy of my bedroom. But in the classroom, with the ears of the class listening to my voice, I couldn’t speak. My mouth became dry and my tongue heavy and stiff.
I plodded ahead, forcing my way to the right side of the page. The paragraph dwindled to a close. I pushed through the last sentence like a runner seeing the finish line, peeking up as Mrs. Tipton called on Julie Spencer, who sat in front of me. Julie tossed her hair over her shoulder, sending a sweet gust of strawberries in my direction and picked up where I left off, gliding through her portion of the chapter. I glanced around the room, all heads were down. I was careful to avoid attention for the rest of the way.
At the end of class, Ms. Tipton tapped my shoulder. “Can I have a minute Sam?” I sat at my desk, awaiting the guillotine as class filed out into the hallway, gushing with energy after having been bottled up in class for the day. Ollie mentioned something about practice but I was too consumed with my impending chat to listen.
The door clicked, sealing the silence in the room as Ms. Tipton called me up front. I slogged past the empty desk, where stood in the unwelcoming space between the teacher’s desk and the rest of the classroom. She pointed to the chair beside her desk. “Have a seat.”
Her rich brown hair was pulled tight into a matronly bun. She wore a caramel dress with a yellow cardigan to complete the ideal elementary school teacher ensemble. Ms. Tipton was never one to scold or chastise her students, but her asking me to stay was not a good sign.
She was near my mother’s age and by far my favorite teacher. At times I imagined that I lived with her instead. After a long day at school we would ride home together. She would ask me how my day went and I’d launch into the details of my very busy day, telling her how Ollie ate four pizzas at lunch before washing it down with my orange juice, or how Tommy had to visit the school nurse after managing to get a green bean stuck in his nose.
She would stifle a laugh, telling me to behave myself in her own softhearted way. Later, I imagined her helping me with my homework before football practice, where she’d watch from the bleachers as she graded the day’s papers and cheered us on.
These scenarios came and went, often when I was in the woods or daydreaming in the classroom, which was why I was sitting at her desk after class. I was hit with a tinge of embarrassment at the thought of these silly fantasies as she leaned towards me, tilting her head as though she was peering into my thoughts.
“Sam, is everything okay, at home? Lately you’ve been having some problems staying focused.” I winced at the word home. Her eyebrows arched upwards, highlighting the concern in her eyes. I felt a jolt of panic. Where was this going?
“Yesterday I could smell alcohol on your shirt and today you are wearing the same pair stained pants, is there something going on that you want to talk about?”
I swallowed hard. My mind became dizzy with fear. Most of my classmates’ parents embarrassed them out of good intentions, maybe letting go with a loud I love you at the bus stop, or a clinging mother leaving a lipstick smudge on a cheek. I couldn’t imagine them waking up hungry, or wearing mismatched socks, dirty underwear, or shorts in the winter because nothing else was clean. The last thing I wanted to talk about was my life at home.
And I couldn’t tell Ms. Tipton that Troy had been at the house every night that week, or that we hadn’t been to the laundromat in weeks and that I had taken to rinsing my clothes in the sink before hanging them to dry in our small bathroom. No probably not. Instead my mind began cranking out the fiction.
“I’m okay, I….I spilled some trash on my shirt when I took it out the other morning.” I spoke to the speckled tiles on the floor, surprised at my own improvisation.
The glowing tubes hummed overhead as I waited, unsure if my answer had satisfied her concerns. Her blue eyes absorbed me. She studied my face before leaning back, taking with her the smell of flowers as she contemplated my story.
“Okay, well let’s try to stay focused in class and if you need someone to talk to you can come to me anytime, okay? Have you been working on your essay?”
Just as one crisis resolved another arose. We were to write about our summer vacation, which was bad enough, but the truly horrifying part was that we had to read it aloud to the class on Friday.
The other kids could stand up in front of the classroom and read about their summer adventures and exploits. Discussions of beach trips, campgrounds, swimming pools, summer camps, amusement parks, ball games, and other memories would be read, one after the other. I could write many things about my summer, none of which I could read in front of the class.
I nodded, feeling the guilt curling down my spine. Her eyes dwelled on me as she shuffled her papers, giving me that warm teacher smile, the smile that expressed belief even though I had just lied to her face, twice.
“Okay Sam, I’ll see you tomorrow. Make sure you get that paper done!”
Outside of the classroom, the hallway was bustling as students strolled out to the buses waiting to cart them home. Teachers and aides worked feverishly to wrangle the kids out without incident, both children and staff relieved as another school day that had come to an end.