They sat beneath the cross that hung above the chalkboard, beneath the American flag that would whip in the breeze of the open windows and under the watch of the colorful countries of the world, adorned high on the wall over the door. They were taught to fear God and pray to Jesus. They placed their hands on their hearts and pledged allegiance to a country they would one day grow up to fear. But most of all the first graders feared her, Ms. A., hunched at her desk with her decapitating glare. To them, there would be nothing more sinister, no razorblade sharper, no loaded rifle more apt to backfire. The recess bell chimed and most of the kids shuffled out of their desks. Willie sat in his chair unwilling to budge, white fingers clutching the metal frame of his desk, tears slowly rolling over his cheeks.
“What is it this time Willie?” Ms. A. demanded to know. Her hands rested on the plush hips of her flower patterned dress.
“I don’t want to go to recess.”
“You don’t have a choice young man,” She belted. “Now get up out of your desk and line up single file like everyone else.”
“Yes you can. Now do it. You’re making a pathetic spectacle out of yourself in front of everyone.”
“I don’t want to go outside.” He said.
“Why not? Why aren’t you ever normal?” She approached him and Willie tensed up even more, ducking as if he was about to catch a fist-blow. “Why is everything such a huge deal to you?”
“I don’t like recess.” He said. “I want to watch the space shuttle launch. My brother’s in 3rd grade and his class gets to watch it. He talked about it all last night at dinner.”
“Willie, get up out of your chair now.” Ms. A. grabbed him by the wrist and he yanked back, banging his elbow against the wooden chair of his desk. “You aren’t your brother. Your brother gets straight A’s. And you’re not a 3rd grader.”
“Don’t touch me! I hate recess! I want to watch the space shuttle!”
“Don’t you raise your voice at me young man. You’re going to recess with the rest of your class.”
Ms. A. began to dredge Willie upward from the pits of his underarms. She was stocky, broad-shouldered like a middle linebacker. Her arm fat dangled from the short sleeves of her dress. Her brown, permed hair sat still on her scalp as she wrestled with the reluctant boy. Willie screamed and kicked, tears cascading over his red face, veins popping on his head beneath his buzzed blond hair. He wrapped his feet under his desk and the desk came up with him when the teacher lifted him. He was in the air, arms flailing, wailing and bucking like a terrified goat. Ms. A. dropped him on his side with the desk still clutched in his bent legs.
“Fine. None of us are going.” She told them. “Thanks to Willie and his baby tantrums, recess is canceled for a week. Get back to your desks and get out your math packets.”
The children filed back to their desks discouraged and defeated. Ashley pulled out her math packet and slammed it on her desktop.
“Watch it young lady.” Ms. A. said.
“I don’t want to do math.”
“You don’t always get what you want. Ever heard of The Rolling Stones?” She said. “Get used to it. Actually, you’ll never be used to it the way your parents spoil the crap out of you.”
Ms. A. sat down behind her desk and pulled out her teacher’s manual. “Timmy, what numeral goes in slot number 1?
You have five seconds to give me the correct answer.”
“Why do you always call numbers numerals?” Timmy asked.
“Because that’s what they are. It’s just another name for something. Just like another name for you is dim bulb.”
She replied. “Time’s up. Give me the answer?”
“I don’t know.” Timmy whimpered.
“I rest my case. Andrea, help Dimmy out.”
“Three.” She said. “One plus two is three.”
“Thank you.” Ms. A. kicked her legs up on the desk, crossed them and put her arms behind her head. “You had better get with it Timmy, or you’re going to end up just like your old man, mopping the halls and changing all the burnt out bulbs around here.”
Dre stared out the window, feeling the warm air from the blowing heater that his desk was next to. He was tuned out, missing the Nerf soccer balls and the spider-like cracks of the aging blacktop.
“Dre, what are you looking at?” Mrs. A. yapped. She snapped her fingers and waved her hand around when he failed to respond. “Hey space boy, what are you staring at? What’s out there beyond the blue yonder?” She noticed his packet was missing from his desk. “Earth to Dre, Earth to Dre. This is Houston talking. Come back from Mars.”
The boy finally looked up at her. On his head was a NASA hat. His straight brown hair was poking through the mesh holes in the back of it. He momentarily focused his gaze on the Letter People blow-up dolls that were lined on a shelf along the far wall.
“Are you on drugs young man?”
“Never mind. Just get your packet out space boy. Unbelievable.” Ms. A. pulled a bag of graham crackers from a brown bag and began to crunch away. She rubbed her fingers together to relieve them of the excess cinnamon and sugar granules. “Only a few more months of this bull and it’s over. No more dealing with you brats. I don’t know what I was thinking going into elementary education.”
“Where are you going?” Melanie asked.
“I’m getting married if you must know.” She said with a mouthful of chewed cracker paste.
“What’s his name?”
“His name young lady, is Mr. B.”
“Where does he work?” Dre said.
“He has a real job.” She told him. “He drives an 18 wheeler for the post office. He’s a real man, something you little boys could only dream of being. Come next Friday, I’m going to be Mrs. new-me. As in I’m done with the old me, done with all of you. I’ve put in my resignation.”
“What’s a regish-nation?”
“Don’t worry about it Dre.”
“I thought we were going to watch the space shuttle.” Dre said.
“Where have you been this whole time? Didn’t you hear me? I said we’re not watching the space shuttle. We’re not watching nothing but the pages in our math packets. All of you that want to be astronauts, forget about it.”
“I want to be an astronaut.” Dre said.
“The way you stare out the window into outer space all day long, I’m surprised NASA hasn’t hired you yet.” She looked up at the TV that was mounted to brackets on the wall. Its screen was blank. Nothing but dusty blackness.
“Then again, if they saw your reading skills, they’d change their mind.”
“Come on Ms. A., two weeks ago you said we could watch the space shuttle launch.” Ashley said. On her plaid jumper she wore a pin-on Space Camp button.
“I said we’re not watching shit!” The first graders simultanously covered their mouths and jerked back in their desks in awe stricken silence. “That TV is staying blank. I don’t care what your brothers or sisters or cousins are doing. I don’t care about what they’re doing in the other classes. We’re not watching it. End of story. I don’t give a crap about the space shuttle. It blasts off, so what. It orbits the moon, big deal. Go watch Star Wars.” She walked up to Dre, took his NASA hat off his head and threw it in the trash. “I’m done looking at these NASA hats and astronaut ice cream and all that garbage.”
Mikey looked down at his feet and saw a yellow puddle begin to collect around the rubber soles of his shoes. He glanced up at the desk directly in front of him.
“Aww man, Ashley peed in her pants.”
“Mikey, run to the bathroom and get some paper towels and clean it up now.” Ms. A. ordered him.
“But I don’t want to clean up pee.”
“Now Mikey! You get back here in under 45 seconds and I might let you wash your hands afterwards.”
A reluctant Mikey got up and did as he was told. Ashley began to sob heavily.
“Did you bring another skirt Ashley?” Ms. A. said.
“Of course you didn’t. Big girls don’t carry extra changes of clothes just in case they wet themselves.” Ms. A. checked the time on the wall clock. “We still have a few hours before class is out. It’s your problem.”
Mikey came back into the room with wads of brown paper towels and bent over to wipe up the floor.
“There’s a teacher just like you on the space shuttle Ms. A.” Melanie said.
“She ain’t nothing like me.” She assured the girl. “Just because she got to train for five months with a bunch of Ivy League brainiacs and float around with a bunch of test monkeys doesn’t mean she has anything on me.”
A booming voice came interrupting over the school’s intercom. “Attention ladies and gentlemen,” The principal said.
“Turn your television sets to channel 5 for the space shuttle launch. T-minus two minutes.” She gently laughed.
“See,” Dre said. “Mrs. Henderson’s letting everyone else watch it.”
“We aren’t everyone else. I want silence out of all of you. Heads down on your desk. Not a peep. Go ahead and put your heads down like we’re playing heads-up seven-up.”
The first graders did as they were told. They sat restless, with their foreheads pressed tightly against their bent arms, most of them wishing they could go to sleep. Dre slid his head over and looked down toward his shoelaces, hidden in the creases of his fingers was a red space shuttle shaped eraser, never once used for its intended purpose. Several more moments passed and the silence was spackled with sniffles and the tapping of shoes on the green tile floor. Ashley could still be heard lightly sobbing. Soon came a banging at the classroom door. All the students raised their heads and perked up. Ms. A. lurched forward and looked out the rectangular glass window. The kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Manninghopper’s face was painted red with grief. Behind her, up against the tan wall were her distressed kindergarteners, some crying, others staring at each other in bewilderment.
“What’s going on out here?” Ms. A. said, holding the door open partially. “What happened Kate?”
The kindergarten teacher stepped into the doorway and grabbed Ms. A., hugging her tightly, pressing cheek to cheek.
Tears and running make-up smeared the first grade teacher’s face.
“I’m so glad it wasn’t you,” Mrs. Manninghopper said. “You have no idea how blessed you are. I know how upset you were about not getting chosen for the space program. We all felt so bad for you. We all thought…” She was so hysterical she could barely breathe. Mrs. Manninghopper caught her breath and placed her hand over her chest.
“What are you talking about? Calm down and tell me.” Mrs. A. asked. The children behind her began to crawl out of their desks in an attempt to peak out the partially blocked doorway. “Back in your desks now!” She snapped.
“Didn’t you see it?”
“What? Didn’t I see what?” Ms. A. said.
“No. I don’t need to be reminded about all the things I can’t have. I chose to forfeit watching it.”
“It blew up, God bless them. All my kids saw it. The Challenger blew up.”