MICHELE FINN JOHNSON
School Lessons is a runner up in the 2017 Birdwhistle Prizes.
HOW WE ARRIVE
The yellow buses wind through a three-mile radius of suburban streets and arrive, miraculously, at the same time each day. They usher themselves within the double yellow lines of the St. Pius X schoolyard, yielding to each other without incident. One by one, the bus doors open and we disembark. There is no yelling, no whooping. We cluster in the areas designated for each of our grades. We stay within painted white lines.
HOW WE MOVE
Maybe it is because that is how they tell us to walk, single file—ducks waddling after the mother of all ducks, Sister Quackenpuss. Or maybe it is because they want to be able to look at the length of us, the human yarn we create by stretching ourselves out across the schoolyard. Maybe it makes it easier to inspect us for flaws—improper tie knots, mismatched socks, untucked blouses. Whatever the reason, that is how we move, long and skinny and purposefully.
When they call our names it is always the same, in alphabetical order, and we chirp Here, and sometimes when they call my name I do not chirp loud enough, and they do not hear me, and they call my name again, and I know that I need to chirp louder. Here. My second Here is shrill, a dolphin shout, and I want to disappear.
Some people are separated because, together, they are greater than the sum of their parts. For example, Larry McCarthy + John Massimo = snot rockets and stink bombs. Cindy Appleton + Pauly Harmon = kissy kissy slobber and a prolific production of folded sheets of paper passed back and forth at Mach 2 speed. Bobby Rocco + anyone else with burgeoning testosterone = paper footballs and finger goalposts. They keep some type of matrix, they must have a matrix, and these lethal combinations—those that add up to more than Sister Quackenpuss or, God forbid, the weaker layperson, Miss Margaret, can handle—are separated.
HOW WE LEARN
The cinder block walls are lined with posters—the pyramids of Egypt, Pharaohs, bars of gold lying at the feet of stone creatures. Our World Cultures teacher is Miss Margaret, and maybe it is because she doesn’t wear the Quackenpuss headdress or because she doesn’t purse at us with Brillo pad lips, but we ignore Miss Margaret; we do not listen to her tales of pyramid building or live burials. We build pyramids of our own out of pencil erasers. Larry McCarthy and Cindy Appleton switch seats with John Massimo and Pauly Harmon while Miss Margaret draws a giant pulley and lever system on the blackboard. A wet tissue plops onto the back of my head. I turn in time to see Larry McCarthy + John Massimo laughing and Cindy Appleton + Pauly Harmon swapping spit.
Recess. They call it free time, but we are quarantined to select areas of the schoolyard. This is done by grade. The unfortunates—the first to third graders—are limited to the area in front of the Convent. Sister Owl Eyes perches in the window of the Convent with a Bible on her lap, and no matter where you are in the schoolyard you will catch a fiery glint off her silver crucifix. You cannot truly escape Sister Owl Eyes until fourth grade when you move to the area in front of the Rectory, where the priests mainly sleep and cow-snore the day away.
By someone’s lapse of judgment, we eighth graders take our recess down the hill beyond the church parking lot, out of view of the Convent and the Rectory and the school. We head down the hill, single file by height, and sometimes due to unpredictable laws of puberty, the people who should not be together due to laws of addition are, in fact, together, and the single file line of ducklings is loud with hand-made farts and actual farts and an occasional smoke bomb.
The class matrix is disrupted when New Girl comes. She has Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific hair and a toothy smile and a fake leg. She is in uniform, standing in front of the class, and Sister Quackenpuss looks at New Girl with an actual smile on her face as she introduces her. We are all looking at the plastic knot that is New Girl’s kneecap. Sister Quackenpuss seats New Girl up front and center, then parts the room in two and has us shift our assigned seats one spot to our left or right, snaking our way to the back of the room, maintaining the original matrix except for a few unforeseen overlaps where end seats became middle seats, and now the previously isolated are in the exact middle of the room, and we can all see the trouble that is to come.
New Girl plays basketball. Her hair swings with invisible wind and still manages to land back in place. Her fake leg stops at the knee and I sit on the bench looking at the color-perfect match of flesh and plastic. When she jumps, I cringe and hold my face in a scrunch until her feet land on the gymnasium floor in a squeak.
Miss Margaret is lenient with the bathroom passes and sometimes I ask for one when I am bored. Today I am bored with the Revolutionary War and its stupid battles. Someone is vomiting in the stall next to me. I cannot tell who it is because we all wear the same saddle shoes. I wait in the stall until the bell rings and we both have to come out. It is Cindy Appleton. I’m fine, she says, but next week during the Louis and Clark lecture she is in the stall next to me vomiting again.
Attendance at detention has increased since New Girl’s arrival. I do not mean to blame this on New Girl. No. She is never at detention, but with the class rearrangement, Pauly Harmon is now only one seat apart from Cindy Appleton, and Cindy Appleton is right next to John Massimo, and John Massimo has abandoned his prior interest in stink bombs and wet tissue bombs and all things bomb-like and has taken a bigger interest in Cindy Appleton and the training bra that she is outgrowing. John Massimo snaps Cindy Appleton’s training bra and Pauly Harmon snaps the back of John Massimo’s head with his World Cultures book and who could blame Miss Margaret for sending the entire row to detention when no one would admit to anything. I am in this row. I stare at John Massimo and Cindy Appleton and Pauly Harmon as I clap erasers and disappear in a plume of chalk.
All mothers are required to be Lunch Moms unless they work. When Cindy Appleton’s mom is Lunch Mom, all of the boys in our room begin to finger-comb their hair and wipe up their own crumbs; they pull folding chairs away from the lunch tables without being told 872 times to do so. Mrs. Appleton smiles at the boys as if she likes them, but at the same time she looks like she has forgotten something important, like where she put her car keys or how exactly she got to the point of being a Lunch Mom. When she gets to Cindy Appleton’s lunch table, Mrs. Appleton looks like she remembers something very important. Mrs. Appleton dumps the still-full lunch bag contents in front of Cindy Appleton, spreads out the entire food pyramid, and pushes an egg salad sandwich into Cindy Appleton’s balled-up fists.
Biology. Sister Quackenpuss sets up the ant farm on the windowsill and we take turns observing. From far away, it looks like a column of beach sand with handwriting carved into it—like hieroglyphics from Miss Margaret’s Egypt lectures—but close up you can see that the handwriting is made of moving ant-ink. Note their singularity of purpose, Quackenpuss says. Ants have one goal—to find food. They follow their leader to the food source; each carries a crumb back to the start. I can’t help but notice the choir-like lift in Quackenpuss’s voice. Try and break them apart, see what happens. Pauly Harmon pushes a stick into the ant farm, breaks the chain. The new branch starts off in a different direction, but within seconds, loops back to the original chain. You all have a similar purpose, children. John Massimo pipes up. To get to lunch period? He asks. To follow the Lord, New Girl says. How smart she is, I think.
We go to the library for recess when it rains. My mom is a Library Mom (which exempts her from being a Lunch Mom) and she knows better than to call attention to her being my mother when I enter the library, single file behind New Girl. Library Mom/my mom smiles at New Girl. Everyone smiles at New Girl except for Cindy Appleton, who decidedly does NOT smile at New Girl, who in fact, behind her back, whispers Peg Leg, Hoppy, Cripple, to anyone who will listen to her. The only one who listens to her is John Massimo, and he laughs a pig laugh that makes Miss Margaret turn around and send our row to detention yet again.
We file past the Convent and the Rectory and the church parking lot and down the hill. It is spring, and so they let us run on the ball field, and it’s the boys that run up and down the field, throwing balls at each other and whooping when someone either catches or drops something. At first, it is the boys that run and hop and whoop, but then it is New Girl too, and it turns out New Girl can not only run and jump like in gym class, but she can field balls too, and she throws the balls straight and fast to Pauly Harmon, our star pitcher, and then Pauly Harmon grabs New Girl by the hand and he smiles and she smiles too and they run, together, behind the ball field, and her hair bounces as they run, and they look so happy that I am not at all worried about New Girl’s plastic knee every time her left saddle shoe hits the ground, and they run behind the ball field and behind the bleachers while Cindy Appleton screams at the top range of her soprano—Peg Leg! Hoppy! Cripple!
Cindy Appleton has more demerits than Satan. She may not graduate. I would puke too, if I were Cindy Appleton.
They offer extra credit for things like cleaning up the pews after morning mass and wiping down the blackboards during recess. The same people always go for the extra credit. I always go for extra credit. I am aware that I do not need it, but it keeps me out of the way of the things going on around me that have nothing to do with me. Sometimes when I wipe down the blackboards, I imagine that I only have one leg and that the weight of me is held up by one good leg and one plastic Barbie leg; that my hair is light and bouncy instead of flat with tiny white flakes. I imagine that my plastic leg is actually full of magical powers—that I can run and jump and find a boy to take me down the hill and behind the ball field and behind the bleachers.
Pauly Harmon + New Girl = Hot and Heavy. We watch as they fly paper airplanes painted with hearts and loopy daisies back and forth during World Cultures class. No one watches more closely than Cindy Appleton. She is clearly in outer space when Miss Margaret asks her to name the two most important Generals of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington? Everyone laughs out loud. Pauly Harmon laughs the loudest. Miss Margaret calls Cindy Appleton to the front chalkboard and makes her write out ‘Robert E. Lee’ and ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ 100 times apiece. Forty-two times in, Cindy Appleton asks Miss Margaret for a bathroom pass.
When they start tacking up Easter eggs and crucifixes on the classroom doors, we know we are in for the dreaded Lent. Forty days of Sacrifice. We give up things that are supposed to mean a lot to us. Pauly Harmon gives up pizza. Cindy Appleton gives up lunch (arguably not a sacrifice). New Girl says she likes a proactive Lent—she will volunteer once a week at a soup kitchen. New Girl makes her Lenten declaration and we all nod and say wow. Even Sister Quackenpuss says wow. This is a different variety of sacrifice. I consider my options before declaring my Lenten sacrifice. I was going to give up chocolate, but now New Girl has made me feel as stupid as Cindy Appleton. I like a proactive Lent too, I declare, as loud as I’ve ever spoken in class. I will go to mass every morning. I feel proud of my proactive Lent until I hear John Massimo whisper, Quackenpuss Junior.
Miss Margaret must have decided to make an example out of Cindy Appleton, because each day in World Cultures, she exploits Cindy Appleton’s apparent disdain for all things world-related. Miss Margaret asks Cindy Appleton to stand up and answer a question pulled from the previous day’s reading assignment. Which state first seceded from the Union? Was Virginia a Union or Confederate state? Who gave the Gettysburg Address and please recite the first line? Cindy Appleton stands there in the middle of her aisle and gets question after question wrong, and finally, after her fifth or so failure, Miss Margaret sends Cindy Appleton to the board to write out the answers over and over again. Cindy Appleton’s bone structure is poking out from her uniform at obvious angles. It seems the more of her weight that disappears, the more visible she becomes to everyone. Chicken legs, Needle neck, Flatsy, John Massimo chants. Hall pass? Cindy Appleton asks.
I am usually the only one at morning mass, other than the nuns and old Father Dowd. Father Dowd has a speech impediment, and it is hard to focus on much other than his lispy Jesus’s. Morning mass, while representing a proactive Lent, is actually quite passive and—truth be told—dull as hell. I use the 40-day window to perfect the sleep stare. As it turns out, I am quite good at appearing to be engaged while floating around in my mind. Occasionally, it feels as if I’m hovering above my body, watching myself fidget in the pew. Sometimes I do a flyover of Quackenpuss’s row, and it looks like she is sleep staring too.
Miss Margaret’s daily sorties on Cindy Appleton continue from late winter to early spring. Twiggy, Bones, Barf-o-matic—John Massimo runs out of nasty-isms and begins to say nothing at all. We have come to expect failure from Cindy Appleton. Where did Lee’s surrender take place? Cindy Appleton is the color of oatmeal. Her back is toward me, and I can see the sag in her uniform socks. There is a long silence. Pauly Harmon passes a folded note to New Girl, but New Girl ignores him. She too is looking down the aisle, likely staring at Cindy Appleton’s legs, their lack of calves. Appomattox, New Girl whispers. Appomattox, Cindy Appleton says. The entire class applauds; even Miss Margaret applauds. I begin to think that New Girl is like Jesus, only somehow more approachable.
HOW WE LEAVE
The bell rings at 4:30 and we burst through the double doors of St. Pius X and spill into the schoolyard, forming queues according to our bus routes. The individual queues, however, have no rules. They are not alphabetical; they are not by height. Genders mix, book bags scatter, kids hopscotch between lines until their bus shows up at the appointed time. It would be chaos if it were not for the sixth-grade Safety Squad, whose members stand at the front of each line with silver-plated badges in their hands, making sure no one crosses into the double yellow school bus lanes. Click, click, click. The Safeties flick their wrists; the silver buckles that hold their adjustable badges to their hands strike the metal faceplate and you know they are there, over all of the shouting and hand grabbing and line blending, the sixth grade sentinels.
The buses are rarely off schedule, and so we get used to the order of leaving. Ribbon by ribbon, we realign. The Safeties step to the side as we board. New Girl’s bus is always first, and so she threads her way from Pauly Harmon’s line back to her own. Her sixth-grade Safety eye-combs the schoolyard for her. Click, click, click. Her Safety’s badge sounds come faster and faster until New Girl is on the steps of her bus. She looks back over her shoulder at Pauly Harmon, her smile as broad as Farrah Fawcett’s. Who could deny her this happiness? Legless, but somehow happy. New Girl’s bus drives away and my attention trails with it. I sleep-stare and begin to drift, in my mind, above everything. I have an aerial view of the schoolyard and it is beautiful—the wayward scrolls of bodies, the tops of heads forming undefined but industrious colonies. Human forms disappear. Those that are left—Cindy Appleton, Pauly Harmon, John Massimo, and even me, down below—string together, connect, blend into something completely identical.