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Photo courtesy of Seth Sawyers |

Photo courtesy of Seth Sawyers |

Photo courtesy of Seth Sawyers |

Photo courtesy of Seth Sawyers |

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The GI green eased around the corner of the ceiling. It was applied smoothly enough, so  halfway down the long wall, fatigue beige began to cover the lower half of the wall, completing the look  of  the classroom. Why the painters split the colors in halves was a question Mary thought about for the time it took to blink; there was too much to do to devote any more energy to this mosquito of a thought.

The breeze blew through the open windows, and the wooden slats on the blinds banged against  the window sill, sounding like an insistent wind chime reminding the painters the paint was nearly dry. The smell of burning autumn leaves rushed up Mary’s nostrils, fragrant as old brandy. Soon she and the  children of her first grade class would be celebrating the season by ducking for apples, melting caramel, sugar, and butter to make the candy apples they would sell at the school  fair. Mary dragged in the last two wooden desks, and placed them neatly in rows in front of her ‘teacher’ desk, a big graceless metal monstrosity with plenty of room for files. The first graders’ used furniture left from the late fifties; the wooden desktops still bore the initials carved into the wood by the children’s parents. There were a couple of bold initialed hearts, but that custom was considered taboo, and Mary guessed the girls were the culprits, using their compass points to declare their undying devotion to some unwilling young boy, now long forgotten.

The workmen and painters helped her drag in the heavy wooden shelves that surrounded the  room, boasting colorful books, featuring titles like “Charlotte’s Web”, “Little Pond In the Big Woods” and “The Pokey Little Puppy”. “A Children’s Book of Verses” was in a different section along with “Thumbelina”, “Heidi”, “Peter and the Wolf”, and “The Little Prince”. These books would change places as would the reading levels. Puzzles were stacked neatly and torn game boxes were repaired with scotch tape. Monopoly was still a favorite, and all the game pieces were counted  

and labeled neatly on the inside of each box. The art of readying a classroom was far underrated by parents, children, and administrators alike, but other teachers knew when they saw a well-organized classroom.

This year, the budget allowed for special brightly colored card-stock, and some high grade construction paper. The card-stock would work well when the ‘bookmaking unit” came around, and the boys and girls learned to make their own binders, covered with decorative sticky shelf paper. Mary  would lead the class from sight words into phonemes, into sentences, and introduce spelling bees. The inventive spelling approach was not for Mary’s class. It led to sloppy and careless habits. When  spelling deteriorated, it followed the lack of understanding would become far greater than it was already, and make communication more complex than it had to be. Mary watched an elementary schoolboy  lose sixty thousand dollars on Jeopardy– not because  he didn’t know the  answer, but because he  could not spell “Emancipation Proclamation”. The furor over the issue was nearly as divided as the discussion over how the IRS should collect  money, but Mary believed too many excuses produced  weak and lazy minds and kids who constantly cried  for “do overs”. Her belief in using the D’nealian  handwriting method sprang from the belief that writing served a purpose in memorizing words, and she wanted the children as close to the language as they could get. Holding a pencil wasn’t easy for the “youngers”, as she called them; the discipline of the small motor skills was necessary to connect the mind and body with what was written on the paper. Magic Markers couldn’t hope to accomplish what a  pencil could, although if given boxes of well-organized markers, the classroom would prove quieter than  any teacher might dream.

Color and imagination and control over writing instruments were powerful aphrodisiacs for schoolchildren. The pencils had to be sharp, the markers could not be dry and should be a collection of fluorescent; invisible color-changing markers could build great leverage for the teacher of thirty to thirty-one six-year-olds.

There were two computers in the classroom and they were used on Tuesdays, Thursdays and once a month for “All Media Fridays”, when Gameboys, computers, and laptops were allowed in the class. She hadn’t decided how to handle the Kindles. They were, at least technically, books, so there might be some “wiggle room” in that decision.

Mary bought a new rug for the storytelling area out of her own pocket. After three years in the  district, living on a very tight budget, she wanted to brighten that all-important area where letters were sounds, sounds were words and words became ideas.

She struggled to her feet, books piled high and heavy in her arms. The dictionary had to have a sacrosanct place: perhaps on a table at the back of the room, where Mary could see how the children were using it and treating its delicate pages.

Someone had put up the flag and it brought its own sense of formality to the room. A globe would be nice, she thought. Maybe she could purchase one through the generosity of the Parents’ Committee. School started Monday, giving the teachers only one more day to work; the administration  would not open the schools on weekends. The school calendar was an evil document made by people  who never set up a classroom once in their lives. Each year the faculty had three days to work in their  rooms with one whole day devoted to professional growth seminars and meeting new teachers in the  district. It was harried and hurried each year. No teacher, however experienced, was ever certain it would all come together as planned.

This year, Mary was lucky. Her room was chosen for fresh paint and the painters had helped her move some of the heavy furniture. Usually, she did it herself, unless she paid Louis, head of the custodial staff, for some help. Louis always made extra money during the beginning and the end of the school year.

She was almost finished. Some extra little wooden chairs were located in the basement; now, everyone could sit down. Mary felt good. Tomorrow, she would put on the finishing touches on the bulletin boards. It took much longer since they stopped using push pins. The staplers were great, but expensive.

Suddenly, a loud siren went off. Someone had broken the “ In Case of Fire – Break Glass!” Not three minutes passed before the fire trucks came through the neighborhood, headed straight for the school. Police cars swarmed the area. Mary could see through the open window that the officers had two strong boys facedown on the ground. Guns drawn, more police ran toward the young men. Helicopters started whirling over the roof, very low. Mary felt the heat from the fire and the smoke curled into her classroom. She could hear the voices shouting: “Wait! We are the police; we will take you out by helicopter! Don’t panic. We are coming room by room. Stay calm.” The smoke grew thicker. There had  been  some  unusual “lockdown” situations  during the  last  term. Maybe….She ran to the door. The knob was hot; the hall must have filled with flames . . .  She headed for the open  window – if  she  could  climb out and let herself down, she could get out of this blackening, intensifying  smoke. It was only about a twelve-foot drop to the privet hedges that grew under the first floor windows. She dropped her books and the dictionary to the ground. She hadn’t realized she was tightening her grasp on them.

Mary couldn’t decipher the loud directions from the team of cops. She pulled herself up by the book shelf and tried to squeeze through the long, open window. She was going to make it. She started slipping down, grasping at the bricks to steady herself. It was then she realized the two boys on the  ground had been joined by vicious, teeming, angry crowds. They overcame the line of police and looked larger, angrier, storming against the dark uniforms of the cops and the orange flames which seemed to be coming out of the school. Maybe those leaves burning were the start of something bigger. 

Mary dropped to the ground. It would be weeks before the projectile that pierced her brain was identified as a stray bullet from a police sidearm.


Photo of the author. Headshot provided by Patricia Sterling-Molitch.

Photo provided by Patricia Sterling-Molitch.

Patricia is in the MCW program at National University and is a voting member of NARAS. Her poetry has been published in the Pierce College “Outlook” and the summer edition of National’s GNU.