(Published in Brevity)
I lean over Todd’s desk. His head is down, eyes concentrating on the tangle of words he’s produced. I read silently along with him, parsing out scribble and scratches. As my bitten fingernail zigzags over his sentences, I realize that even my fingers don’t match my image of a fourth grade teacher, who should be neat and composed, with a rosy complexion and trimmed, polished nails. She is not someone who must ask repeatedly for attention and good behavior, whose voice gets muffled in the chatter of children, who anxiously picks at her nails and tears at her cuticles until tiny red bumps appear.
Todd has misspelled the word house. He has forgotten the e. I consider asking him what the correct spelling might be, imagine him looking up at me with big, brown eyes, searching the details of my face for the correct letter, but decide to just tell him what he needs instead. Alejandra is behind me. I can hear the clink and ping of her fiddling with the colored pencils. She’s probably doodling on the desk, her long, dark lashes cast down as she tries to escape the demands of the classroom and enter into the world of her drawing. I’m trying to ignore her insubordination—she should be writing a paragraph like the rest of the six students in my after school reading class—but clearly another one of my tactics has failed. I turn around, ready to demand she sit back in her seat, prepared to be heard and heeded this time, but she is looking at me, wide eyed.
“Ms. Jillian,” she whispers. “Are you wearing a thong?”
I realize that my thong is peeking out of my pants. As she rifled through the box of pencils, Alejandra must have also been watching my backside as I bent over Todd’s desk, pondering the thin line of flower-print elastic that clings to my waistline. I nod solemnly, mentally adding another dress code violation to my long list of teaching errors. But then she looks at me conspiratorially, as if this is a secret we share. Her head is cocked; her lovely brown complexion lifts into something close to a smile. She is no longer a manipulative ten year old who pouts when she wants permission to draw hearts on the chalkboard or be excused to the lavatory for the third time in an hour. In a moment, Alejandra has become a young woman learning how to manage the intimate details of our gender.
I turn back to Todd. He has dutifully added the e, but his composition—five sentences describing his home—is riddled with errors. I ignore them, focus on the correct word, and smile. He grins back at me, but there is something about his expression, the penetrating, hooded brown eyes, that tells me he knows I’m overlooking his other mistakes. Guilt ripples through me, coils in my chest. He’s experienced this kind of neglect before and forgives me all the same.
Published in Brevity