Chapter Description: Clark is helping Janet grade papers, when he comes across a most distressing and accusatory essay.
I read from the barely legible handwriting in front of me:
“I like to eat chicken and ham chicken and ham is good to eat I like to eat chicken and ham and ham and chicken and chicken and chicken and ham I like to eat chicken and ham….”
I looked up from the paper. “And it just goes on and on. Janet,” I said, “is there an Eldritch code in this somewhere or did this child get kicked in the head before writing?” Tracy and Beouf cackled in their chairs. “Do these children not know what a period is?” More laughter.
Janet reached across the cluster of desks. “Let me see.” She squinted at the paper, analyzing the handwriting. “This is Ethan.” She said. “Yeeeah, Ethan has a learning disability. Great at talking, bad at getting his words on paper. He just starts to go on a loop and can’t stop. This is still a big improvement from the beginning of the year.”
Tracy, Beouf, and I stopped giggling. Great. Now I felt guilty. “Unfortunately he gets no credit for this,” Janet sighed and made a ‘0’ with her big red pen. “Didn’t even write to the prompt.”
“What was the prompt, again?” Tracy asked.
“They were supposed to write about who their role models were,” Beouf said.
“Chicken and ham.” A whisper by me.
“Ham and chicken.” A little louder from Tracy.
“Chicken and ham and ham and chicken.” Beouf. Even louder.
“Ham and chicken and chicken and ham!” Janet shouting!
We all burst out laughing. All of us. Even Janet. Sometimes you just had to laugh at this stuff. It was better than crying, anyhow. Janet flopped her head down on the desk. “Kill me. Just kill me. Dead please. Thank you.” More laughter.
We were all gathered in Janet’s room. A few days ago, her students had had to participate in a school wide writing exercise in which every third through fifth grader had to write to a prompt for close to an hour straight.
Sit still. No talking. Eyes on paper. Just write. Not what you want to write. Write about the most generic thing possible: Shit like ‘Favorite season’, or ‘Favorite food’ or ‘Role models’.
It was bad for the kids and worse for the adults who had to enforce it. Keep an atmospher of perfect quiet and focus with a bunch of eight and nine year olds? Might as well have asked them to find the Lost City of Ohiyo while they were at it.
Also, it goes without saying, but written essays had to be graded eventually. That’s where we came in. Janet had asked Beouf and I to help her grade the work, and naturally (having nothing better to do) we obliged. Tracy was technically off the clock, but elected to stick around and help. We pushed some student desks together, (I was left to supervise of course) divied up the stack, broke out some pens, and indulged in the ages old habit- that tradition passed down from teacher generation to teacher generation: Grading papers, talking trash, making jokes, and quietly worrying about how good we really were at our jobs.
“At least his spelling was fine,” Beouf said, “Do you want us to count spelling?”
Not breaking her gaze from her own pile, Janet tapped a printout she’d placed in the middle of the cluster. “It’s on a rubric. If the spelling doesn’t really stop you from understanding what they’re trying to say, let it pass once or twice. But if it’s starting to interfere with comprehension or happening a lot, start marking off for it.”
“Got it.” A quick glance let me see red ink go flying across Beouf’s selected page. “Geesh, my babies can spell better than this.“ No joke…
I swallowed my pride and kept marking at my papers. To prevent bias, all student names were covered up with tape, but I was secretly hoping that the ones who were doing particularly well were some of my former students.
Tracy and I must have been on the same wavelength that afternoon. “I think I got Mason’s,” she said to me. Sitting at the Amazon student’s desk, Tracy might have been mistaken for a student instead of staff; it fit her perfectly. “Remember how he used to write his lowercase a’s?”
I leaned over, having to stand on the gigantic chair to be able to write on the desk. “Oh yeah. That’s Mason, alright.”
“Let me guess,” Janet said, “the little flourish he does after the tail?” Tracy and I nodded and laughed. “Sounds like Mason Hargrove to me.” She looked up. “Do I have you two to thank for that?”
“I guess...” I chuckled. “It’s kind of something he’s always done.”
“I’m kinda glad he kept it,” Tracy said. “It’s a part of him.”
I bit of nostalgia came over me. “Seeing how they grow from year to year is one of the neat things about this job.”
“Yeah…” Beouf said, moving onto her next essay to grade. Tracy and I shot each other a look. Beouf was probably just agreeing for the sake of agreement. Most of her students stayed in her room for years at a time or their Amazons withdrew them to a private daycare. Beouf’s kids never grew up. They’d all already done that by the time they got to her.
Life isn’t fair. It’s complicated.
We got back to grading. The laughter could only last so long before drudgery kicked in. A few more minutes of reading this third grader’s account of them looking up to their softball coach or that third grader’s rambling about the latest pop star, and Tracy broke the silence. “Oh, how about that joke, Mrs. Grange?”
Janet looked up from her stack of essays. “What joke?”
“The joke about your husband!” Tracy said. “The one you told me when we first started talking! I”ve been trying to tell Clark, but I just can’t quite get the details right.” Is that what Tracy had been doing the last couple of weeks? Something about somebody painting a house, and a cat, and gasoline...I’m still not sure, even as I write about this.
Janet looked like she’d just tasted sour milk, or like she was constipated. So that’s what that looked like from the outside. “I’d rather not.” Sore subject, apparently.
“Oh come on!” Tracy was already starting to laugh. “It was a really good joke.”
I looked towards our newest friend. Unlike Tracy, I could read a room. “It’s cool,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Had to be there, right?
Janet chewed on her lip. “Right.”
Beouf put down her pen. “Something wrong, hon?”
The young Amazon looked weary, and not just teacher weary. A cup of coffee might not help this. “Things aren’t going so hot right now,” she said. “We’re trying for a baby.” Neither of my coworkers cooed or smiled or awed at that. “It’s not going so well...” She looked at the floor and let the comment hang.
“You could always try adoption,” Beouf offered. Tracy and I shared another look. This time it wasn’t wistfully knowing or nostalgic or anything resembling happy. When Amazons talked about adoption, real babies- much less Amazon ones- didn’t often figure into it. As the two shortest people in the room, we were both suddenly very uncomfortable. Yes, even though it was just Beouf. Yes, even though Janet had proved to be fairly sane for an Amazon.
Janet smiled politely with her mouth, but frowned with her eyes. “Maaaaaaaaybe…” she said. “I hadn’t thought about that.” Based on her tone and her careful hemming and hawing, Janet was being polite. It was the type of reply that people gave when they wanted to say no, but didn’t want to offend. Beouf’s entire career hinged around Little adoption. Janet was being polite.
To her credit, Beouf dropped the matter with a shrug. “It’s not for everybody.“ Darn right it wasn’t.
Janet tried to lighten the mood. “I probably wouldn’t tell it right, anyways. You really had to be there.” She half heartedly did jazz fingers. “Cat walks under a ladder. It ran out of gas. Yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk!”
My ears wiggled. “Yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk?” I said. I almost got whiplash from how quickly I snapped my head up. “Fuzzy? Fuzzy Bird? Did you just quote Fuzzy Bird? Muffets?!”
A more genuine smile, and a glint of mischief from Janet. “I did!”
“You like the Muffets?!” I lost a bit of composure. I’d grown up watching reruns of the show and the various movies. It wasn’t a cartoon so it was deemed safe to watch.
Janet’s face opened up even more. She was becoming all eyes and teeth. “Uhhh, YEAH! Who doesn’t?”
Now it was Tracy and Beouf’s turn to exchange looks, theirs a bit confused. “I have a couple of Muffet stuffies in my classroom for the kids to play with during free time!”
“Stuffets! I know! I saw them the first time I walked in!” Janet was bouncing in her seat. “I’ve got some, too!”
“You do?” I felt myself shaking with something other than rage. “Where?”
Janet looked shocked. Insulted in the way only a true geek can be insulted. I’d just challenged her credentials. “Uh...there!” She motioned to the wall directly behind her; just to the right of the board. There, sitting on a shelf that was bolted to the wall, were Muffets.
Kremit the Turtle, Miss Puggy, Fuzzy Bird. Ralph the Piano Playing Rat. Gongzo the Strange! She even had the mad scientist and his assistant; Nutz and Bolt. Muffets. So many Muffets. “How did I not notice these before?”
“Because you were so busy looking at the clock,” she teased. “Did I tell you guys how nervous he was?”
“Oooooh no! Do not change the subject!” I said. “We’re talking about Muffets! Muffets. Now.” Cassie hated the Muffets. It wasn’t a deal breaker in our relationship, obviously, but I just got razzed everytime I brought it up. I hadn’t had anyone to talk about this show with in years.
“My son used to watch the Muffets all the time when he was growing up,” Beouf said.
Tracy agreed. “Yeah. It’s a pretty funny kids’ show.”
Like a T.V. lawyer, Janet was standing up to her full height. “It is NOT a kids’ show!” she declared. “It’s a classic international intellectual property that is family friendly and written for all ages. ALL! AGES!” She was going way over the top and overly theatrical. It gave the mini-rant an air of light heartedness.
And yet...I would not want to have contradicted Janet Grange in that moment. Her passion was a joke until it wasn’t. Rather like the Muffets themselves, come to think of it. “It’s seen a surge in sales over the last few decades since home media’s become more readily available,” I said. I was trying to hide my own giddiness while showing off my fan credentials. “But during its initial six season run, The Muffet Show was on primetime television, well past children’s bedtimes.”
“What Gibson said! All ages.” She reached out for a high-five. “Up top, Clark!” I slapped her palm. I couldn’t help it; I was excited. So sue me.
Janet and I then proceeded to embarrass ourselves for the next short eternity with conversation bits that went a little like:
“Remember when Gongzo tried to sing opera while on fire!”
“Or how about the time Fuzzy actually finished a bit-”
“But the theatre was empty?!”
It wasn’t until Tracy was packing up to leave that we looked at the clock and realized we had less than five minutes left in the work day. “Oh...sorry,” I said, finally realizing enough to blush a bit.
“Oh it’s no problem,” Janet said.
“It was kind of cute,” Beouf chuckled, leaning back in the student desk. For once, I didn’t mind being called ‘cute’. Maybe because it was the act and not me. Maybe because an Amazon was included in that statement, shielding me. I don’t know.
I glanced at the clock. “I can grade at least one more essay,” I said. I picked a paper from my stack and started to read it.
I shouldn’t have. I really wish I hadn’t.
My red pen went clattering to the floor, and my good natured blush became hot. Fear and righteous anger started to bubble up inside of me.
It was Mrs. Beouf that spoke up. “Mr. Gibson? Clark? Are you okay? What’s wrong.”
“My role model used to be Mr. Gibson,” I choked out, reading from the essay. “He taught me that it was a good thing to grow up and not be a Little baby.”
Tracy saw the look on my face. “Boss? What’s wrong with that? Why are you shaking?”
“Little is capitalized,” I said. I was keeping my voice low and quiet. It was either that or scream until my throat burst. “He’s not using the word as an adjective.” I couldn’t see the name on the paper, but I knew who’d written this.
“My students barely know commas,” Grange told me. “It’s nothing.”
I just kept reading on. “He helped me grow up and learn to use the potty by showing me how silly it looked to be a baby all your life. I remember all the times Miss Tracy would take him into the bathroom to change his diaper for him, and how silly and immature he must have felt doing that. When he came into our classroom a while ago he was still wearing a diaper. I could see it poking out of the back of his pants.”
I’d like to tell you that I kept a steady pitch and tone throughout. That I kept my cool and every single syllable came out as something bored or neutral. That would be a lie. My words were unsteady and shaky. They sped up and slowed down as I fought my body for control and lost. The word ‘pants’ in particular came out high and squeaky, and every time I said ‘diaper’ the word was a breathy whisper as the air rushed out of my lungs whenever I tried to pronounce it.
“Jeremy Merriwether,”Janet growled. “That shithead.” The ripped off the masking tape to confirm it.
I’d fallen down in the oversized chair and was sitting down for the first time that afternoon. I had to. I brought my knees up to my chest and rested my arms on them. My life was over. Totally over. Cassie was going to kill me if I ever got to see her again. I was breaking down. I was openly crying. I was frozen. Fear and anger were mixing inside of me, and right now the ratio was leaning towards fear.
Both Beouf and Tracy were standing over me. Patting me on the back. Shushing me. “This isn’t an essay,” I cried. “It’s a written accusation!”
“It’s gonna be alright Mr. Gibson,” Mrs. Beouf told me. “You’re fine. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
A hint of the other day’s old righteous indignation came over me. I looked up at my old ally with snot starting to bubble out from my nose. “Melony!” I squeaked. “There are Littles in your classroom who were adopted for less.”
“Well yeah,” Beouf replied. “But it was true in their case. Yours isn’t.” Right then I wished I could have believed her.
“I don’t change diapers,” Tracy said as if that solved everything. “I barely help with the kids’ Pull-Ups after the first report card. We make them do it themselves.”
“That’s not the point,” I said. “If they find anything that they could use to justify my firing, they’ll do it. And...and...” I couldn’t finish the sentence. It’d be all downhill from there. Fired meant can’t hold down a job, meant needed caring for, meant adoption and permanent revoking of my rights. All because I was Little. I buried my eyes in my hands again. “Typical.”
The world became a radio as I stared into the palms of my own hands.
“Fire you for what?” Janet asked.
“Immaturity.” Tracy and Beouf said. “A tiny clause in all of our contracts. If they can reasonably prove that we’re unfit for our position, most often due to Maturosis, they can terminate our contract without additional proceedings or cause.”
Janet sounded confused. Offended even. “Why is that in his contract?”
“Typical.” The word was becoming a moan of pain instead of a curse. They weren’t really listening to me by this point. Not that they needed to.
“It’s in all of ours,” Tracy told Janet. “Yours too. Mixed up in there with all the other gobbledy gook that you sign.”
“It’s a provision left over from a couple of decades ago,” Mrs. Beouf said. She was still gently patting my back. “It was the only way to get the Union to allow Littles and Tweeners in. They didn’t want to be seen as supporting incompetents. It’s never been phased out. Politics.”
“Will they find anything?” Janet asked. “Anything that could get him...y’know...?” I was too overwhelmed to be insulted just then.
It was Tracy who scoffed, but Beouf who answered. “Nothing that Brollish or one of her suck ups don’t plant themselves.”
“Why don’t we just lose the paper?” Tracy suggested.
Beouf gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Can’t do that. We’re all mandated reporters and this is a serious accusation. If we don’t report it, we’re all liable.”
“Typical.” It was the only word I had just then.
“Then what do we do?” Janet asked.
“Hypothetically?” Beouf said. “Because of the way it was submitted, we have some plausible deniability as far as time table. Clark didn’t find this, today. Mrs. Grange might find it tonight finishing up the grading, and report it first thing in the morning.”
Janet took the hint. “And while I’m discovering it, what’ll you two be doing?”
It was Tracy who said it first, and best. “Scouring his classroom. Making sure there’s no wiggle room for Brollish. Covering Clark’s butt so that someone doesn’t diaper it instead.” No one laughed.
I made a mental note to text Cassie. I was going to be late tonight. Then I’d have to get ready for the fight when I got home. “It’s not fair,” I said. “It’s just not fair.” I would have said it more, screamed it if I could.
“It’s not,” Janet said. “Clark, I’m so sorry. When I invited you to teach my class, I didn’t mean for this to happen!”
“We know,” Beouf said. “We know.” I could only nod my agreement. Words were hard just then.
The three circled around me. Hugging me. Hugging each other. Down the back of my neck, I swore I felt a teardrop. I’d just gotten everything I thought I’d wanted from a few days prior:
A hug from several trusted friends and confidants.
A sincere apology.
Maybe even an Amazon’s tears.
I’d gotten everything I’d said to myself I’d needed, and felt more scared and miserable than ever.
The hug broke off. “Come on, Boss,” Tracy said. “Let’s hop to it. This might be a long night.”