On Monday, Venessa Stenson stared out the window during math drills. Mrs. Reynolds called to her, asked her for the solution in the problem set, and waited for an answer.
Venessa looked at Mrs. Reynolds and shook her head slightly. “I don’t know,” she said. Her voice was breathier than usual, lower. Venessa turned away and looked back out the window. Mrs. Reynolds thought to scold the girl, but noted something in her demeanor that said sadness, so she went on. She called on Bobby instead, who eagerly gave the right answer.
Tuesday, over optional breakfast, Mrs. Reynolds saw Venessa whispering into Melody’s ear. Mrs. Reynolds watched as Melody’s mood changed. The child seemed to deflate: her little face caved in and her brow burrowed deep into her eyes. Angrily, Mrs. Reynolds marched toward the girls, sure that Venessa had told Melody something mean, but again she was met by the melancholy of Venessa and stopped. Maybe Venessa’s grandmother died. Or her cat. It was always horrible when pets died.
By social studies hour, four girls were near tears: Venessa, Melody, Cindy, and Samantha. They didn’t sit near each other. They sat in four different sections of the classroom and each one of them looked off into space. Mrs. Reynolds called to the lesser one, Cindy, “Pay attention. The capital of Uruguay, Cindy.”
Cindy looked at Mrs. Reynolds, her big blue eyes wet and hurt. “It’s Montevideo, Mrs. Reynolds.” She then looked away, her small head framed by amber curls. Dead cat, thought Mrs. Reynolds.
Wednesday, at lunch, Mrs. Reynolds watched girl after girl whisper into another girl’s ear. Some were in her class, some were in Mrs. Garcia’s class or Ms. Hayes’ class. She leaned over to the other two women and asked, “What is it with our girls?”
“What do you mean?” Ms. Hayes asked. “Hey, do you have any cigarettes left? I ran out.”
“I do,” Mrs. Garcia said.
“But you smoke menthol.”
“Look, if you’re really fiending for nicotine, you wouldn’t care. You want one? Meet me on the west side at recess. I’ll spot you.”
“Listen. It’s mostly the boys talking,” Mrs. Reynolds said. The three women all went quiet as if listening for an odd noise in the middle of the night.
“I hear some girls,” Mrs. Garcia said.
Ms. Hayes nodded and looked around. “But Becky’s right. It’s mostly boys, it’n’it? Odd. You think it’s some kind of game?”
“I see them whispering,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “One whispers to the other, then they are both just, I don’t know… crestfallen.”
The three teachers watched as Samantha, who recently went through a growth spurt and was about a half foot taller than her classmates, walked over to Shalonda, who was in Ms. Hayes’ class. Samantha asked Shalonda something. Shalonda responded, then conspiratorially leaned over, moved some of Shalonda’s box braids away from her ear and whispered something.
“Shalonda’s tough,” Ms. Hayes said. “This won’t affect her.”
Shalonda nodded. Then Samantha stood up straight, towering over the other girl. Her face was red from bending over, but still she looked pale.
“Watch,” Ms. Hayes said. Shalonda looked as if she was not fazed, as if she had just heard a mediocre joke. Samantha walked away. “See?”
They continued to watch. For a full minute, Shalonda did nothing but spin her fidget spinner. Then, the girl kind of collapsed into herself. Her lips drew down and her nose folded into it, forcing a squinched-up scowl. Shalonda bent at the waist and her knees buckled beneath her. She didn’t cry, but she may as well have.
“Maybe a story about a pet dying?” Mrs. Reynolds said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Mrs. Garcia argued.
“Cats are important.”
“Nothing as little as a cat,” Mrs. Garcia said. “Maybe someone’s grandma or maybe their whole family. You think murder-suicide?”
Ms. Hayes said, “Stop reading the news. It could be something bigger than that, something more philosophical. Something existential. Maybe they realize that ultimately, none of this matters.”
“What do you mean none of this?”
“I mean fourth grade. Fractions and solving for X. Capitals of countries and understanding puberty. Maybe they know they’ll learn all of this shit, march through the requirements, and die anyway.”
“We keep saying dying,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “Maybe it’s us. Maybe they look at us and see droopy boobs, sagging asses, and crow’s feet.”
“Speak for yourself, babe,” Ms. Hayes said, “ain’t nothing sagging on me.”
Mrs. Garcia rolled her eyes at her younger colleague. “Maybe -,” she began, but the bell rang. They moved toward the front of the lunchroom near the doors and blew whistles, calling the children to line up. As the fourth graders got in place and the three teachers and their aids marched them outside for recess, Mrs. Garcia’s ‘maybe’ rang through the lunchroom.
Wednesday night, Mrs. Reynolds told her husband about the girls. Over dinner: mashed potatoes, roast beef, corn, and a wedge salad. Mr. Reynolds said, “Maybe it’s a trick they’re all playing. A little kid’s equivalent of a flash mob.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they’re not really sad, but they’re acting to see how the world around them reacts. Are all of the girls doing this?”
“Nearly so, but only in fourth grade.”
“The girls who aren’t, are they unpopular?”
“No. I think they just haven’t gotten the secret yet. I’m telling you Malcolm, it’s like an infection or something.” Mrs. Reynolds put her knife and fork down. She wasn’t eating.
“I’m sure it will be fine by next week.”
She thought about the girls getting older, getting breasts and menses, getting pregnant and fat, getting felt up or raped, getting passed over. “Have you noticed the lines on my face getting deeper?”
Mr. Reynolds stuffed a forkful of meat and potatoes into his mouth. He shook his head no, not looking up at his wife.
“Cathy thinks the girls are having a collective existential crisis.”
Mr. Reynolds laughed, spewing potatoes all over his plate and Mrs. Reynolds’ hand. Mrs. Reynolds stood up from the table, washed her hands at the kitchen sink, and held back tears as her husband continued to laugh.
Recess on Thursday was a boisterous time for the fourth-grade boys. They had the run of the playground, and there they were, trying to swing as high as possible on the swings and when they reached those heights, they’d jump off. They boogied across the monkey bars, playing chicken by scissoring each other’s legs and trying to make each other jump off. They ran up and down the slides and spun the tire swing at sickening revolutions. They threw a football throughout the playground and tackled each other without mercy.
The girls stood listlessly by the doors to the school, not talking, not giggling, not smiling. They looked pitiful. “We grow older, then old,” Ms. Hayes was saying, “then we get useless and become burdens. We die. Most of us won’t be remembered beyond our immediate families and our friends, and when they die, we’ll be forgotten completely. Gravestones marking our existences for no one at all.”
“Would you stop it with that? Garcias do not become burdens. We love and care for our old. We remember each other in celebration during Dia de los Muertos; we live forever.”
“Bullshit, Esmeralda. You’re not even a practicing Catholic!”
“Dia de los Muertos existed well before the Spaniards came over. Whatever Tina, my point I was trying to make is that’s not what’s wrong with those girls. I think it has to do with the shootings.”
“All the shootings! The gangs around here. The cops killing black and brown kids. They are upset at their fathers beating their mothers, their big brothers not getting jobs, their big sisters getting pregnant. You don’t know about these things because you go back home to the ‘burbs at night.”
“The ‘burbs. Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Ladies,” Mrs. Reynolds said, holding up her hand. She pointed at one of the boys who was playing football, running backward, not watching his step, and on the trajectory of a girl. “Watch it!” Mrs. Reynolds ran to protect the girl, but she was too late. The backward-running boy bumped into the girl at top speed. The impact was audible. The girl went down. She did not hold her arms and hands out to protect herself, only fell flat on her face. She emotionlessly turned her head to the side so she would not kiss the dirt. Mrs. Reynolds could see the child was bleeding and needed some attention, but the kid had not even cried. She just stayed there, on the ground, looking at nothing at all. “Are you alright?” Mrs. Reynolds asked. The child closed and opened her eyes really slowly. Fishlike.
“Renee?” Mrs. Garcia called out as she walked toward them.
Mrs. Reynolds stood up and heard, “Watch out!” She was hit by a football below her shoulder blades, along the spine. Her arms buckled and her body shifted forward. Tears stung her eyes but, of course, she did not cry, not in front of her students.
She turned around and saw men laughing, moving about in spite of hurt and stagnate women. She turned again and saw stunned, but jittery boys. There were no men. What was she supposed to say to them? Stop playing? Pay attention to the quiet girls? Ask why?
At home that night, she lay silently beneath her husband, her hands grasped his shoulders, but her mind was with the girls and their crusade of misery. It was not what Mrs. Garcia or Ms. Hayes thought, but something else, something more primal. These girls were probably anticipating a lifetime of their bodies being vessels for other people, from partners to progeny. They were probably aware of all that women come to be, making strides but stymied by systemic sexism. They probably saw the freedom of the boys on the playground and all that the almond-shaped ball represented: wars fought and won, organization, camaraderie; all that was for men.
Her husband finished and she, so wrapped up in her thoughts, did not notice. Missed her cue to make noises. He rolled off and lay beside her. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Next week, they will be back to normal.”
“Would that be good? To just go back to how they were before? Would they have learned anything?”
“Are they learning anything from this?”
Mrs. Reynolds sat up, not wanting to say another thing to Mr. Reynolds about her fourth graders. “Maybe they aren’t the ones who need enlightenment.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
Mrs. Reynolds got out of bed.
Friday morning, Mrs. Reynolds took a short shower. She didn’t fix her braids. She wore no makeup and packed a bag of family-sized potato chips for lunch. At school, she had her students do group work and watched as the boys took over and reluctantly took the notes. The girls looked macabre in their doldrums. Their faces were all twisted in various states of disgust. Their hair was uncombed, fuzzy, they were all carelessly beautiful.
At recess, both Mrs. Garcia and Ms. Hayes were also unprepared for the world, dressed down in jeans and t-shirts, hair messy and faces unmade. Ms. Hayes openly smoked right there on the playground beneath the “Drug-Free Zone” sign. None of the three women smiled. Their faces sagged into the expressions they used when they were alone, when no one was watching, when there was no reason to care.
“It occurs to me,” Mrs. Reynolds said, “that we’ve never asked the girls what is wrong.”
Ms. Hayes lit another cigarette from the butt of her first. Mrs. Garcia grabbed the pack and shook a cigarette out. Mrs. Reynolds had another handful of sour cream and onion potato chips. “It’s so gorgeous outside today,” she said.
Back in her class, the boys wouldn’t quite quiet down, wouldn’t stop shifting in their seats, couldn’t really refrain from making paper airplanes and spitballs with notebook paper, and they couldn’t prevent both the airplanes and the spitballs from flying through the air. No one, not even Mrs. Reynolds, was paying attention to the lecture. The girls were silent, but distant and down. Venessa Stenson stifled something and Mrs. Reynolds stopped.
Venessa looked at her, her eyes full of water, but she wasn’t crying.
“Venessa, what’s wrong?”
The girl’s face crumbled. Her mouth opened and she let go of a sob. This is a sound, Mrs. Reynolds thought. She made a sound! And with that, Mrs. Reynolds felt guilty for never contacting the girls’ parents. This girl or any of the girls. How had they behaved at home? Was this a citywide epidemic? Were girls wandering around town mute and morose? And why hadn’t any parents contacted her?
Venessa cried harder, not wiping her face. Her hands stayed on her lap and her head shook, but the girl did not move. Mrs. Reynolds asked again, “What is wrong with you, Venessa?” And the other girls begin to cry.
By Monday, would it be back to normal? She left the classroom in search of Mrs. Garcia and Ms. Hayes, leaving behind paper projectiles, and tears, and raucous boy noise. Leaving sobbing girls behind.
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