» Nonfiction

Among Schoolchildren

Like a cormorant turning on the wind before tucking its wings and descending into the ocean, my mother, five days a week for forty years of her life, submerged herself in the primary schools of small-town Texas, each brick or stucco campus at which she worked named for a hero of the Alamo: Travis, Crocket, Bowie, and Bonham, garrisons of the alphabet and basic arithmetic—crumbling and underfunded missions all.


As the school’s lone counselor, my mother traveled from classroom to classroom, her materials piled on a Rubbermaid cart as if she were a vaudevillian or ventriloquist, boxes and suitcases filled with dolphin puppets, marionettes of creatures from the sea, and stuffed-animal pirates, each one with an accompanying picture book to teach children about difference and compassion.


Abandonment was the fear that trumped all others, and the children carried it always, the fear dissipating only at the sight of a father’s arrival, or spreading like a fever at the close of the school day when a mother was not readily seen.


How deeply the children sank into worry, withdrawing into hooded sweatshirts like miniature monks, or carving row upon row into their desktops with the tip of an inkless pen.


To be sure, the children had cause to worry.


Parents deployed to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and though most returned to the Air Force base on the city limit line, some did not: the brother ambushed in a sandstorm at night, a father’s helicopter losing sight of the ground, a mother’s Jeep triggering an IED.


There were the domestic and financial worries as well, and my mother scrounged shoes for the shoeless and glasses for the sightless, arranged pro bono visits from doctors, marriage counselors, custody advocates, and lawyers.


Each Friday, she filled backpacks with nonperishables for the poorest children to take home for the weekend, without which they would have nothing to eat, the great isolation of hunger, each child, not adrift for days, but helpless, inert, a boulder in a river around which all water flows.


For loneliness, consider the third grader born without cheekbones, a shrunken jaw, Treacher Collins syndrome, who met with my mother when a surgeon was found to perform a procedure in Dallas for free.


The recovery required that a helmet be worn for weeks to secure her features like clay dredged from a riverbed to dry in the sun. The young girl’s concern was not the surgery but the wearing of the helmet, conspicuous to all.


A deal was struck, and when the girl arrived back at the school, my mother was wearing a helmet as well. Other teachers and students joined in, and for two months all manner of headgear—whether bicycle, beanie, lacrosse, or hockey—bobbed through the halls.


Like Janus, the Roman god with counter-gazing faces, the god of new beginnings and transitions, the children relied at all times (naively, stubbornly, irrespective of evidence) on hope. Each six-week block, each promotion in grade, was a chance to start again, and if hope flickered and dimmed like a struck match, their final refuge was laughter.


When the vice-principal, svelte as an offensive tackle for the Houston Oilers, the muscles of her right forearm hard as an ox’s neck from swinging a hole-bored hickory paddle (in a time before spanking was banned from public schools), tucked her mohair skirt by accident into the rear of her floral-print underpants and inadvertently promenaded through the hall, the laughter, shrill and instantaneous as the city’s lone tornado siren, overwhelmed the vice-principal’s calls for order so that, red-faced, defeated, she was left with no choice but to skulk to her office and brood.


The pièce de résistance (French, spoken with a Texas accent, could peel paint from the Eiffel Tower itself, and for two semesters in high school an English teacher referenced the “Bore-gē-OH-ēs,” the word seared in my mind until, in a Marx Brothers movie, I heard Groucho correctly pronounce “bourgeois”) was the story my mother told about puberty education, how, on one day every school year, the fourth-grade boys were sent en masse to the cafetorium as the girls retired together to the gym.


Television stands with VCRs were wheeled down from the A/V closet, and for forty-five horrifying yet fascinating minutes, as the teachers popped in the tapes and slipped out for a smoke, the children suffered a barrage of gender-specific information from menstruation to dropping testicles, body hair to voice cracks.


On one such appointed day, my mother heard shrieking from the cafetorium and gym at once, and as she rose from her desk, a teacher ran through the hall, her just-lit cigarette trailing smoke from her undulating hand like a priest swinging incense.


“The tapes are switched!” the woman yelled. “The students are watching the wrong tapes!” as the vice-principal, gopher-like, peered out from behind her office door.


In the end, parents had to be called, and though no explanation would fully suffice, the secretary (who got stuck making the calls) offered only a shrug and a halfhearted, “They would have learned about it all sooner or later.”


The one indisputable truth about children is that they grow into adults where personality, instead of evolving, calcifies.


“Joey!  We taught you better than that!” my mother, sitting at the kitchen table, would exclaim and slap her hand down on the newspaper article she was reading when a now-adult student was apprehended for robbing a convenience store or absconding with a neighbor’s car.


For my mother, the adult was never severable from the child, which became the measure of her work. Student replaced student each year until, at last in retirement, the progression, like the volley of soldiers against the walls of the Alamo, subsided.


I shall never retreat, Lieutenant Colonel Travis wrote in his final hours.  Victory or Death—the scene reenacted each year in the spring while the teachers mouthed lines to the costumed martyrs, and their parents, knowledgeable of history and fleeting time, raised cameras and tripods like bugles and swords.


Jonathan Fink

Jonathan Fink is Professor and Director of Creative Writing at University of West Florida. He has published two books of poetry: The Crossing (Dzanc, 2015) and Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad (Dzanc, 2016). He has also received the Editors’ Prize in Poetry from The Missouri Review, the McGinnis-Ritchie Prize for Nonfiction/Essay from Southwest Review, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and Emory University, among other institutions. His poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, New England Review, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, and Witness, among other journals.