The public middle school eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor is questioning her life choices.
Her classroom is damp and smells like Axe body spray. Her classroom always smells like Axe body spray, which is worse than the smell of body odor the thirteen-year-old boys try to conceal by spraying so much Axe body spray. The directions for Axe body spray state clearly that “2-3 seconds of spray should do the trick,” but the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor is certain that the thirteen-year-old boys in her classes do not follow the directions for applying Axe body spray. To smell her classroom, you’d think these boys pop the caps and splash their Axe on, dab wrists and pits with body spray by the spoonful.
The eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor thinks of her female students as young women, but she can’t help thinking of the boys as anything but boys. They grunt. They gyrate. Hair spiked or heads shaved, they hump the air. They are not young men, are far from men. They are closer to badgers in temperament and intellect, badgers if badgers smelled like Axe body spray.
The eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor isn’t even supposed to be an eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook Advisor. She has an MFA. In playwriting. From Brown. She is not the type of person who would say she’s too good for this job, on account of the myriad problematic and privilege-laced declarations such phrasing makes, though were she the type of person to make such a phrasing, believe her, she’d be making it.
Long before she was an eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor, the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor survived a school shooting, survived a predatory track coach, and survived a gauntlet of high school AP Exams, all with the aim of getting out of this school system.
Now she is back in this school system. “You’re back!” her teachers, now colleagues, cheered upon her acceptance of the job. “What brings you back?”
What brings her back is a brother with bad insurance in a country with bad healthcare. Once a week, the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor holds her brother’s hand, or holds the vomit bucket on his lap, while poison circulates his veins. For weeks, she joked that, soon enough, he’d glow in the dark, until her brother explained that chemotherapy was not the same as radiation, and was she stupid? Did she think that his intravenous cytotoxic medications were radioactive? Was she that fucking dumb?
Chemo, some weeks, makes her brother grumpy.
Her brother’s cycle is two weeks on, one week off. On off weeks, on weekends, they daytrip it. Thirty miles to the north, manatees arrive for the winter and clog the waterways, their backs like flagstones in the rippling springs. A hundred miles to the west, a hippo celebrates his sixty-fourth birthday. The zookeepers feed the hippo a pumpkin, the hippo unfurls a disturbingly prodigious penis, and, for a minute, she and her brother forget that cancer is a thing.
The hippo penis would have thrilled her students, boys and young women alike. They would have howled and gawked and told stories for days.
Instead, in the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor’s classroom, in a cloud of Axe, they read stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson.
They read “The Lottery,” and, in each class period, the students miss the point of Mrs. Delacroix’s stone, “a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands.” How the largest stone is not a cruelty, but a mercy; how the evil is the system, and not the stone itself; how the sooner you put some people out of their misery, the better. “Would you rather be pelted for hours, or have a rock dropped swiftly on your head?” she asks. Her students don’t answer. They don’t know. They are going to live forever, they’re sure of it, and who among them has time for stories or for stones?
In New York, the final Sondheim’s being staged in Hudson Yards, and on Broadway Danny DeVito’s doing Theresa Rebeck’s three-hander about the hoarder and his daughter. The eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor with an MFA in playwriting has friends in New York City, would fly to New York City for a weekend to see shows, if she could, if she had the money; but being an eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor, she doesn’t have the money.
Being the middle school’s Yearbook advisor pays a stipend of $500 for the year.
By school year’s end, the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor’s brother is in remission, and the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor is able to identify every Axe body spray scent at the hint of a whiff. She favors Blue Lavender, though she admits there’s something to be said for Emerald Sage. Aqua Bergamot is a fucking tragedy and is banned from her classroom.
The eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor is not the kind of sister who shaves her head in solidarity. She’s not big on shaved heads, let alone solidarity, even with her brother sleek as a newborn at her side. At the springs, the park, the zoo, she holds her brother up, ignoring his raw, ballcapped scalp while her hair hangs the length of her back.
She wants to tell her brother what she longs to tell her principal at each semester’s active shooter drill, middle schoolers groping in the dark of the class supply closet, the Axe stink thick as ever: that managing symptoms is not the same as eradicating the disease. That, quiet in the dark, they’re all just waiting for the shooter to open the door. That, cancer in hibernation, still we’re pumpkins in the hippo’s mouth, heads waiting for the largest rock to drop.
But what does she know, a writer who doesn’t write, a playwright who can’t afford to see a play? The yearbook she’s spent a year assembling will not convey her fears, her insecurities. Because, in the end, a yearbook is names and pictures, images unhinged from import, faces uncoupled from the stories they could tell. In ten years, the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor’s brother will be dead, and she won’t remember any of these students, not one.
Were her life a play, the eighth grade Language Arts teacher and Yearbook advisor suspects it wouldn’t be a good one.
And maybe that’s where she’s wrong. Or maybe she’s just feeling sorry for herself. After all, her brother’s at her side, if not forever, for today. So why not take his hand? Why not move to the water’s edge? Why not shut her eyes, tight as she can, and imagine skipping over the backs of manatees, crossing the river to some other unseen side?