Things my middle school kids asked me today: What color are the insides of jellyfish? Is blue a different blue in Argentina? Can someone be fluent in two languages? In four? In none?
7:27 A.M.: I finish typing my lesson plans, and before I press “print” the power goes out.
7:47: I fix the only copier in the building for the fourth time.
7:56: I hold 180 warm quizzes to my chest, breathe the hot ink in like a prayer.
7:58: I take my first sip of coffee, see the two minutes left before the first-period bell, and think to myself: Oh my god, I have so much time left.
The kids are so loud that I miss the morning bell. When I drag myself to the front of the room, three minutes late, they fall silent. Waiting. Tugging their growing grins down at the edges of their mouths. I look each one in the eyes—slowly, seriously, piously—and I say to them:
“May the grudges begin.”
“May the grudges begin!” they scream back, like a creed.
Because tomorrow they will be quizzed on adjective-noun agreement, today my Spanish students play Grudge Ball—that most brutal and riotous of classroom review games. Instead of earning points, a correct answer and successful free-throw into the wastebasket takes points away from another team—any other team. Precisely twenty seconds of begging, pleading, and alliance-forming are allowed before the start of every turn. May the best team be the last team standing.
Thirty-seven minutes later, Team Two takes out their longstanding allies Team Three for the win in a blaze of malevolent glory that is almost too bright to watch. They are pure, undiluted egotism. I call “Team Two!” seven times for their rewards, but they are busy trash-talking. Team Three is vowing their revenge. I yell, “Don’t let Ms. Gipson hear about this next period!” but I already know she will be down the hall to scold me about transition times or behavior matrixes or common core. Against my better judgment, against the growing din, I shout, “Don’t even let her hear you say the word ball,” and my sixth graders dissolve in a clump of sharp elbows, knobby knees, middle-school laughter. The bell rings and they surge toward the door, a great wave of slapping hands and outstretched arms. They shout their goodbyes and I revel at the many forms of my name, cradled in all their different accents.
In four-point-seven seconds the room is empty: blessedly, forlornly still. I turn to my mug of coffee, long grown cold. I offer it to my lips when the tinniest ah-hem breaks the silence. Tiny Tyre, all stringy muscle and cheeky grin, stands on his tippy-toes behind my desk. His cheeks are aglow with mischievous pride.
“I was on team two!” he declares.
“Congratulations,” I say with mock solemnity, and open my top desk drawer: my drawer of brightly-colored bribes. Tyre gasps at the great array of Snickers, Twix, Tootsie Pops, Double Bubble. His nimble little fingers shoot to the very back of the drawer, where three days ago I’d stashed my last Splenda packet for the afternoon coffee there’s never time for. He tears it open, throws his head back, and scurries out the door, sucralose sticking in his throat, before I can say another word.
Things I told my kids today: Adjectives and nouns rhyme. A noun is a thing. You are a thing. You are something. You must’ve lost the mind your mama gave you.
7:42 P.M., September 14, 2016: Columbus police approach three young males fitting the following description: a group of black males, one possibly armed, demanding money.
8:10: Tyre King is taken to Nationwide Children’s Hospital with three gunshot wounds.
8:22: He is pronounced dead.
11:20 A.M., September 15, 2016: Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther raises concerns about easy access to lookalike weapons.
11:29: Police Chief Kimberley Jacobs holds up a photo of Tyre’s BB gun. She says, “There are no winners here.” A news commentator remarks, “It gets dark early at that time of night on that corner. You can see how this could constitute a misunderstanding.”
Tyre was thirteen. He was barely five feet tall. He had a BB gun. The news spells his name Tyree. Tyre was thirteen. He was five feet tall and he sat in the second row on the right side of my classroom and for the first two weeks I remember him only speaking to me, and in a whisper. He told me he didn’t always feel smart like other kids, but he liked math because he was pretty good at it, and that made him feel like everybody else. Tyre was thirteen. He had a BB gun. He ran. He ran and he pulled a BB gun from his waistband. Adjective-noun agreement probably did not cross his mind in the moments before his little body hit the pavement.
Things my kids asked me today: Did Neruda feel silly telling everyone he’d named his chair? Did he always want to be a writer, or sometimes just a man?
Things I told my kids today: Did you eat breakfast. What about lunch. Are you tired. Are you bored. Pay attention.
I will not be at Tyre’s funeral because I have already done this once before. Tyre is not the first student I have lost, buried, scolded and not gotten to say goodbye to. When sixth-grade Sophie died last year, eleven years old with fine blonde hair she always shoved back from her sweet narrow face, the art teacher Erin and I shared a ride to the service. Together, we learned that it’s possible to have an open-casket viewing of a gunshot wound to the head, as long as you’re not too particular about the details of your child’s face. The mortician applied pink eyeshadow that Sophie never wore and the director dimmed the parlor lights and strewed children’s toys around the room: ancient dolls with chipping skin, blind teddy bears with stitches where button eyes used to be. The room was hot, dusty, unbearable. An old wooden horse sawn off its carousel stood guard at the entrance to the funeral home, a tag that read SOPHIE tied tight around its neck.
Staring at Sophie’s name, I remembered a story I once told my sixth graders about the carousel horse on the third floor of La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house in Chile. It stands next to his chair, the one he named la nube, the cloud, in a room of floor-to-ceiling windows, watching Valparaíso’s ships dock at sunset. “A horse from one of the first and most beautiful carousels in France,” the tour guide had insisted, “Neruda had to have it.” I had seen it five years before as a student, a tourist, a twenty-one-year-old who used to stay up late because the night seemed too full of promise to sleep. I had never thought, even for a moment, that there could be anything bad enough in the world to make a carousel horse look sad. Surrounded by the growing wails of the funeral parlor, I turned to go see it again, to walk out of that sweltering room with the blind toys and Sophie’s swollen eyes. I turned to walk straight onto a plane, to make that horse and the Chilean cliff face the last thing I ever saw. I turned, and found Sophie’s best friend Kayla, twelve years old and six feet tall, standing alone in the doorway. “My dad is coming back for me,” Kayla explained, at full volume, the way that children who have never been to their best friend’s funeral are wont to do. Her voice, too loud, echoed off the back wall and threw itself back to her, which startled her and she began to cry.
The funeral home shared its parking lot with a Steak & Shake on the north side of town. I counted the cars in the drive-through while the three of us waited for Kayla’s father, the hot wet weight of her heaving body doubled over across my narrow shoulders. The stillness—of her father’s face, of Kayla’s body strapped into his passenger seat—was worse than her wailing. Together, Erin and I walked deliberately to her car—one step, two steps, three—and then we peeled out so fast that the Jeep left deep irreverent tire marks, the acrid stench of burning rubber.
We ordered two extra-large Oreo milkshakes. We parked facing the funeral home. The two of us evaluated its shoddy exterior and rusting beams, its drooping green awning, and we laughed until we sobbed. We laughed and laughed and choked on artificial vanilla flavoring and through our sobs we kept repeating, “This wasn’t fair, this wasn’t fair, goddamn.”
Things my kids asked me today: What language do you dream in?
Things I told my kids today: None, I dream without words.
Three days later, hunched in a dark room over kid-sized tables, Erin sat correcting a quiz with Sophie’s name at the top. The grade didn’t matter anymore, but we pretended that it did. A report card would still be sent home, and we were expected to grade according to pre-established guidelines. She held the paper out with one shaking, ink-stained hand and asked me, “Are there sufficient details here?”
Next to the date, Sophie had sketched a cartoon elephant with a long, sweeping trunk. I traced its smile with one finger. I counted back the days, the hours in my head. I counted back as if it mattered: could she pull the trigger one week after drawing the smile on an elephant’s trunk? One day? One hour? Did she look me in the eyes that Friday morning? What did I say wrong?
Together, we measured the painting Sophie gave Erin three weeks before her funeral, hung the blue and purple flowers with Scotch tape on the classroom wall. For three days, in the silence between bells, I pretended not to hear it peel away, pulling free from the concrete. When it finally fell in the middle of ninth period—her class—I reveled at its weightlessness; I counted the seconds in which it hung suspended. I pretended not to feel guilty that I couldn’t catch it before it hit the floor.
Things my kids asked me today: Is it always hot in Chile? Does your husband know our names?
Things I told my kids today: Their sun is brighter than our sun. Our suns are all the same suns.
Things my kids asked me today: Do you love that place? Do you love it more than this place?
Things I told my kids today: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Neruda’s horse keeps watch over la nube, the cloud, and it’s still there for you to see where red and pink and peeling yellow houses cling to Valparaíso’s hills at sunset. Three weeks after Sophie’s death the rain came down hard, and as my classes piled in I handed them El Libro de las Preguntas, The Book of Questions, for the second time this year. They smiled, as if greeting an old friend, and sat cross-legged on the floor next to their desks and whispered to each other: What happens to swallows who are late for school? Is this sun the same as yesterday’s? Was it where they lost me that I finally found myself? Where is the child I was, still inside me or gone?
At the beginning of the year, my students had held these same poems, and together we’d written down all the sounds they heard. It took me that long, I suppose, to finally realize how much they had to ask. So we talked about what it meant to have questions without answers, about how these poems were questions and also answers, and came only after Neruda’s death. On cards of bright yellow construction paper, I asked them to write their own questions about the world. I’m trying now, but I can’t remember Tyre’s. What I do remember is wanting them to write about yellow leaves and endless tree roots, but instead they wrote things like “Where did my father go?” and “Why does Donald Trump hate us?” What I remember is the deep and frantic desire to keep them safe, to teach them to duck-and-cover, to walk out that classroom door and never look back. I remember my mentor teacher’s words ringing in my ears: Don’t do activities with your students, don’t sit at their level, don’t smile too much, don’t cry, don’t ever cry, don’t get too close. And yet I sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by my students, close enough to smell the heat and sweet sweat of their skin, clutching Poem no. 7—Why do clouds cry so much, growing happier and happier?—on paper the color of robin eggs. I counted to five and tossed up those cards covered with questions the color of our sun, of our Midwestern fields, our leaves in fall. My students’ faces were bright and unafraid, laughing, eyes on each other rather than the questions—as they rained onto us, all the colors of the earth.
Sydney Tammarine is a writer, teacher, and translator currently pursuing her MFA at Hollins University. Her essays have appeared in Cleaver Magazine and The Missing Slate, and her most recent book of literary translations, Diez Odas para Diez Grabados, is forthcoming in Santiago, Chile from Taller 99. You can find her at www.sydneytammarine.com.