In my classroom, there was an open hole where a ceiling tile once was. Gusts of cold air provoked me and my teenage charges to wear our winter jackets throughout the day. I placed my lunch sack beneath the hole for its refrigerative properties. By noon every day, my sandwich was ready to eat.
“I’ll fix this after school,” Leonard, our custodian, said, but every time I saw him in the hallway, he looked down, draped his heavy metal hair across his aviator frames, wheeled his bucket in the other direction. I couldn’t follow him. I taught seven classes. Leaving the children alone was a dereliction of duty, even though the children were seniors, most already adults. Some had after school jobs more lucrative than my full time job. I ate my lunch at a desk in the hallway while I checked for bathroom passes. I had few resources. Worse, my principal Annette was scrutinizing me closely for any signs of a screw up. I was new, and therefore, given to failure. Annette believed in “communities of passion,” some catch phrase she’d read in the Harvard Business Review, and being prone to mood swings and also under her own particular brand of stress, she often visited my classroom with her own particular brand of passion, confiscating students’ iPhones and venti macchiatos during homeroom while screaming about educational excellence and rigorous standards. I couldn’t win. We were cold and overworked. Our needs were not met. We were tick marks on a checklist. We were rubricized. Each of my classes was a community of survivors. Our passion was for surviving the winter in room D27, 44 minutes at a time.
It was February. I wrote on the white board with Expo markers, wearing my knit fingerless gloves. I smudged my lesson objectives as soon as I wrote them on the board, lefty that I am. My white gloves held the secrets of the day, a blurry, black blotch on the meat of my palm. I pulled my hand away from the board, gave my words room to live. I felt a cold breeze brush against my ear. Already a screw up. I was not at the door, greeting my students by name, inquiring about their extracurricular interests. I was not developing a passionate enough community. The students rambled to their desks slowly, cupping their thermal mugs to warm their frozen hands. I pointed to the floor, which is where the mugs would need to go at the warning bell, the bell that signaled Annette may come in and assume possession of the only things that would get them through the morning, their coffee, their bagels, their Tik Tok videos.
Annette arrived at the bell, dependable as clockwork. Had she been hovering outside the room? I’d have known if I’d been smiling at the door, asking Johan what’s in his travel mug, sizing up Erica’s parka and asking whether she had a hat; it’s a bit nippy in here. I’d been staring so hard at the whiteboard that I saw patterns in the layers of streaky Expo marker erasure viscera, ghosts from yesterday’s lesson. I didn’t notice Annette, did not hear her as she started the day’s diatribe, but I did notice Natalie’s shrill voice rising over the tendrils of caffeinated vapor wafting from cups as she pointed to the hole in the ceiling, then moved her outstretched arm in swooping arcs across the room, shouting, “ A BIIIIIIRRRRRRDDDDD!!!”
The bird was a shiny black blur, a blackbird? A grackle? A starling? It fluttered underneath the dangling fluorescent tubes, banging against the light fixtures, before diving down, narrowly clipping the brim of Marco’s hoodie, casting a watery white dropping on Nayeli’s desk. What to do? I thought, looking at my inky glove. Renegade birds had not been covered in my teacher training program. Annette clutched her head. “Why did you not inform Leonard of this hole?” she shrieked, visually tracking the trajectory of our special guest’s flight patterns, her head swaying to and fro.
“I did!” I said, adding, “He ignored it.” I put my arms around Cat and Miri, who were huddled together, laughing. We would problem-solve. Tomorrow we could write journal entries about our experiences. I mentally adjusted my lesson plans. I swung the door wide open and ushered my students out, and we followed the bird as it flew down the hallway, searching for a better exit.
Amy Kiger-Williams holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Newark. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Yale Review, South Carolina Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Normal School, Redivider, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection. You can read more of her work at amykigerwilliams.com and follow her on Twitter at @amykw.