The school parking lot is crowded with people who have gotten out of their cars to chat in the cold gray drizzle of an Oregon winter day. She threads her minivan through the conversations, avoiding eye contact. She parks and busies herself with her phone, refusing to look up, refusing to acknowledge the other parents. It’s Friday, and she has no words for these people.
She disappears into her own silence so completely that when her daughter throws open the car door and climbs in, the woman jolts to awareness, frightened for an instant. She collects herself and manages a smile, “Hey, babe. How was your day?”
The girl reaches to buckle her seatbelt, “It was good.” She looks curiously out the window, “Why is everyone standing in the rain talking? It’s like they’re having a party or something.”
The woman shrugs, tells a small lie, “Maybe they’re talking about the holidays.”
The girl turns her head to look back as they drive away, “OK, that’s weird. Nobody ever gets out of their cars at pick-up.”
The woman grabs this small segue, “Speaking of weird . . . anything interesting happen today?”
The woman relaxes a bit, “No good gossip to share with me?”
“Nope. Oh wait . . . there was one weird thing today.”
“We had a substitute, and she went crazy.” The girl giggles, “Seriously, Mom. She went off the substitute rails.”
The girl settles into her seat, “OK, so you know how substitutes are. They never know anyone’s name. They never know where anyone is supposed to sit. They’re never certain about the rules. So the day always feels different when there’s a substitute . . . like time is passing over train tracks, all bumpy.” She turns to her mother, “You know what I mean? When the regular teacher is there, everything is smooth. Even when there are surprises, you know the teacher has it under control. Times just ticks along. But when there is a substitute, there is this weird tension in the class . . . everyone feels it. Does she know when we’re supposed to go to PE? Does she know what the second bell means? Does she know what assignment we’re on? Does she know to stop the loud boys from going to the bathroom as a group? It’s like we’re all a tiny extra vigilant on the substitute’s behalf. It’s not bad, it’s just tension. We’re paying so much attention, we notice time too much. And then it’s like time is bumpy . . . it slows and speeds and stops and starts . . . it’s hard to explain.”
“No, I think I understand.”
“OK, so the substitute we had today? She was doing alright. Time was bumpy, but she was alright. And then suddenly? Everything changed.”
“We came back from lunch, and the classroom was noisy because everyone was putting stuff away and getting other stuff out, and the substitute was just standing there looking . . . fragile. Mom, you know what I mean? That’s really the only word for it . . . fragile. Like she was all bruised from inside.” The girl shakes her head, “Never mind. She just looked weird.”
“Everybody started quieting down, ready for class to start. This one boy got up to sharpen his pencils, and he dropped one and then he somehow stepped on it and it cracked in half. I don’t know how he did it, because the pencil should have been flat to the ground, but it made this neat little snap of a sound and it just broke in half.”
“So the crack of the pencil? The whole class heard it. It was that sort of noise, the kind that just cuts through, you know? And so people started giggling, because that’s what you do, and then? The substitute just started yelling.”
“Yeah, yelling. She started yelling at the boy who stepped on the pencil about how dangerous pencils are, and about how he needs to be careful with pencils. She yelled at the rest of us for laughing. She said pencils can put your eye out. She said pencils can stab right into your brain and kill you. She yelled and yelled, like really loud.”
“And nobody came into the classroom to see why she was yelling?”
“Nope. And then she started yelling about a boy she once knew who got badly injured with a pencil . . . stabbed in the eye or stabbed in the brain . . . she was yelling about both things, so it was kind of hard to know exactly what happened, and no one wanted to raise a hand and ask a question while she was flipping out.”
“And then she started yelling at us about how we need to learn respect. About how we need to be aware of the dangers in our everyday lives. About how danger is everywhere, and we don’t even know. About how we take our lives for granted. And we were just all staring at her, not sure what to think, because all that actually happened was that a pencil broke in two. So we just sat quietly and waited for her to calm down.”
“What happened next?”
“The quiet seemed to startle her . . . almost as much as the pencil snap, but in an opposite way. She was ranting and raving, and then she suddenly seemed to just see us . . . like we hadn’t been there a moment before and then suddenly we were there. It was weird. And then she just went on with the rest of the day.”
The girl reached to turn on the radio, “So then the rest of the day was fine. Extra bumpy, because time passes differently when you are waiting to see if there is going to be more screaming, but the rest of the day was fine.”
“Did she apologize?”
“Nah. It was like a storm . . . there and then gone . . . nobody’s fault but the weather. It only lasted about two minutes, and it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about any of us. We all knew it was about something else.” The girl is thoughtful, “You know what I think? It was about whatever that fragile bruised thing was . . . the thing I noticed about her when we came back from lunch.”
The girl thinks for a moment, “Like she was maybe carrying a hurtful small storm inside.”
The woman says nothing.
She has no words.
She will have to find some soon.
They travel home together, pressed beneath a fragile bruised sky.
December 14th, 2012.