The afternoon had a flu-like quality, gray and threatening to burst into tears at any moment, but I held it together like a grown-up, taught my classes, smiled at the children. I was in love with one little boy who couldn't write, not one idea in his head despite my encouraging crouch near his desk so long my knees were stiff and rising I almost passed out.
The sky drained of color but plenty of gray light. The teachers nodded sympathetically and said That flu is horrible go home, get some rest.
On the sidewalk thronged the children like little commuters, with their plastic slickers and empty lunch boxes, waiting for their mothers to come pick them up in big shiny minivans. I tottered into poisonous air, head aching with flu, ears ringing with the fever of five hours teaching, saying "Good! Good! That's great, that's wonderful," in a high sincere voice.
The children are so smart, I can't take it sometimes.
The way some of them will turn and look straight through me
Then I noticed the girl on the sidewalk, face the color of skimmed milk, ginger hair limp and straight, cut hopelessly to the chin. A small sad storybook of a second-grader, trying to evade her oppressor who in this case was wearing a puffy pink ski jacket and tormenting grin. The bigger girl walked backward blocking the small one from wherever it was she wanted to go. The little victim tried to get around her,
couldn't; tried, couldn't, dodged,
head down, resigned,
the only object now being not to let anyone see me cry. It was myself of course. I stood rooted next to my foggy car, keys in hand, smelling the wet asphalt. Oh that tragically trembling chin! How did I get to be middle-aged, delirious from teaching these children for years, coaxing them to flower into the brutally onrushing future, into the mystery of their fates where poetry may or may not help them?
Then I remembered
and stepped forward.
Took her hand,
cool and fresh as milk,
trusting, in my own fevered paw,
and tall now, sidestepped the taunting girl.
But I wanted to talk to her!
the bully persisted, grinning, still grinning--
the awful, relentless, pasted-on grin--
As if I hadn't been on that side of it too.
As if I didn't know.