I talked too nicely. Apparently first graders aren’t supposed to do that, aren’t supposed to talk nicely. At least not the boys. People get ideas.
Can I talk to you, please, ma’am? Manners are suspect, but I fear reproach, fear rejection, authority, like a good Christian should. And this teacher, like all women, evokes thoughts of my mother. I’m sorry for forgetting my homework. I get confused sometimes, and I forget things. My mind is always on the video game in my desk, or the pictures on the walls, or the leaves outside on the trees; I imagine the breeze learns to open windows and rushes into the classroom, across my face, scattering papers as I’m supposed to be learning to spell. I’m called on. The windows are closed. Papers covered in swirling graphite lines lay still.
The other kids laugh.
I know the answer though, once the question is repeated.
No, I know it doesn’t count. I just want you toknow I’m sorry. I… I’m really sorry. I want you to know that.
She sends me to a room where I put together puzzles, order pictures of a woman buying soda into a sequence that makes sense (purse, change, slot, button, drink). A strange woman asks me questions but does not answer mine (not even when I repeat them). It looks like she’s writing down what I say, but it doesn’t look like she’s listening: her eyes slide from paper to games to stopwatch, never resting on one for more than a few beats, and never on me. I think she is not very good with people, so I try to help by asking simpler questions.
Why am I doing this?
Are you a teacher?
Do you like your job?
I focus on the games even though they are not fun. I want to leave this room. I’m missing class.
The next day, or maybe the next week, I hear my parents fighting. My mom says it’s a good thing, but my dad says it makes me a freak; people will think I’m a freak.
They do not talk to me.
In class, my neck aches from staring at the clock over my shoulder. A handmade sign underneath asks, Time will pass, will you? My teacher clears her throat, nods in what she promised would be a private manner, and says, “It’s time, John.” The tips of my ears burn. I shift from my seat and try to slink down the eye-lined aisle.
We repeat our little not-so-private ritual each day, and for the first time I count the days until summer vacation.
I learn to appreciate my time in the hallway. I run my hands along the tiles and stop to feel the texture of the carpet. I wonder how many people know what it feels like against their fingers—course and tough, like Brillo pads stitched together in strange patterns of maroon and puke-green. My heartbeat quickens as I stop in the bathroom to pee without permission.
I’m a rebel.
I go to a new room, where older kids are learning about the ocean and the Wild West. We learn to tell Indians we come in peace. I wonder why they are teaching us to lie. I’ve seen westerns.
They call it Pace, and I think it’s a class for slow kids. I think they lied to me like they did to the Indians. This room is our reservation. I think they sent me here because there aren’t any windows. I think about the trees, and dream the wind will find me.
The woman with the games who is not good at conversation has lied to me—she did not come in good medicine; she spoke with a forked tongue. I hate this place.
The kids in my old class ask if I’m retarded—they want a confirmation, not an answer. I tell them I don’t know. Our teacher is angry. She says I’m not retarded; she says I just need special attention. God, special attention.
I think she is lying.
[Originally published by Wilkes University’s Manuscript, spring 2014]
John G. Carroll is a transient dreamer who has spent his life so far living in the Wyoming Valley of North Eastern Pennsylvania—but he swears he’ll be leaving presently. He can often be found staring blankly at ATMs in or around coffee shops, desperately reconciling his budget with the cost of just one more small black coffee and a donut.