What is dramatic about wanting to protect ten kids from the bullshit of the world? Just ten. That’s all I want.
I’ve never been one for trouble. But today, Principal Watkins is really trying it.
No, but you’re spitting on me now, so aren’t we even?
“Stacey,” Watkins says, and I feel a heavy mass form in my gut. This must be what students feel every day when they forget their homework or struggle through a test. Why do we do this to them? Why is Watkins doing this to me? It was one thing for him to visit our town, our school, but in my classroom? The sanctuary I’ve cultivated for the past six months? Unfathomable.
“Please,” Watkins adds, like a child who just remembered his manners.
The rest of the teachers whisper to one another. I could’ve predicted this. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t expect it. It’s the kind of foolish you feel when you accidentally skip a stair and your body overreacts like it’s plummeting down a hill. Stacey, how didn’t you see that one coming?
Ms. Patty and I are the only teachers of color. We’re both black, and every opportunity the school can get, there’s a camera in our classroom or someone from the school board in our faces shaking our hands, commending us on what a good job we’re doing like they can’t believe we actually know how to teach. They even invented an award last year just for Ms. Patty. Something about teaching and encouraging diversity, even though our school has about seven students of color, none of whom are in my or Ms. Patty’s classes. It was the Magical Negro Award, we half-joked. And my odds of winning the MNA next year are looking pretty good.
“Look,” Watkins says. He’s gripping the podium like he can’t stand without it. “I’ve got specific directions. They encouraged using a diverse teacher.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Ms. Patty says and throws up her hands. Watkins either doesn’t hear her, or he outright ignores her.
“Ms. Lauren, if you have any questions, please let me know. He’ll be here at 10 a.m. tomorrow.”
I know I should say something. Ms. Patty turns to me like she expects me to scream or boo Watkins off the stage. And she’s right. I should say something. Reference ECE studies about exposing children to toxic authority figures or threaten to call the Superintendent with a strike. Or at least ask for another day to prepare my kids. Ten a.m. only gives me morning assembly, thirty short minutes, to brace them for whatever chaos he ushers in. As if you can ever prepare for a disaster of such magnitude.
“Okay. Dismissed,” Watkins says. He waves quickly and disappears behind the curtain like he’s afraid we’ll throw tomatoes, and if we had them, we one-hundred percent would.
Usually, I arrive at school an hour before the kids to clean up the classroom, scrape off whatever blobs of paint, clay, and/or gunk they’ve left on the walls, desks, and floor. But doing anything this morning besides dragging myself out of bed and making coffee already feels like too much. When I get to school, Watkins is standing outside my classroom. He’s so anxious, he’s vibrating in place. I want to sit him in our class comfy corner, surrounded by stuffed bears and throw pillows.
“I didn’t know there’d be so many, but you look beautiful, so please don’t be nervous!” he says. He still hasn’t gotten the memo that no one wants to hear anything from a man they don’t know, compliment or insult—anything. I want to tell him he looks “beautiful” too, or that he really ought to not mention anyone’s appearance, pleasing or otherwise, from his creepy old mouth again, but then what he said clicks. So many of who? I peek over his shoulder into my classroom door and see the “so many” he’s talking about. Three camera crews, hot news anchors, camera people, and all stand crowded amongst my kids. My little ones, who are supposed to be waiting for me in the gym with the teacher aide, look up at the cameras and the big adults nervously, their necks pulled into their sweaters.
I can put up with a lot of nonsense. Lord knows I’ve dealt with the belittling of grad school professors, the humiliation of a microscopic paycheck, and the absurdity that is the Common Core. I can shoulder through all that. But my children? The helpless, barely-toothed babies surrounded by the voracious media like street cats ganging up on a displaced nestling?
I think the fuck not.
“Principal Watkins, are you kidding me?” I say.
“Hey, they told me one photographer.” He puts his palms up like he’s innocent, but Watkins is so far from that. When I first took the job at Polk, I didn’t want to fall so easily for whatever everyone said about him in the break room: that he’s a spineless opportunist with questionable taste in suits and little concern for the arts. I pushed that stuff away. He’d simply seemed innocuous to me, blending into the long line of many older white men I’d known in all my years of schooling.
But even small annoyances—his increasing of class sizes by one or two kids, his insistence on staying with a curriculum just one more year even after our complaints, his inability to remember students’ names and then his dumb smile when he gets a name wrong that says, Aren’t I a rascal?—stack over the years. I don’t have the patience anymore to see Watkins as another tired, overworked public employee. Oh, you’re tired? You more than anyone else? No, too many stunts, too little time. I push past him into my room, and he follows behind.
“Good morning, class!”
“Good morning, Ms. Lauren!” they chime. Every day their little voices sound like a pluck from a cherub’s harp, and yet Watkins doesn’t give a second thought to exposing my children, mere babies, to such bullshit. I want to shove Watkins and the camera crews right out the window and pull down the shade, make my kids forget any of these people were ever here to disrupt their day.
“And good morning, strangers,” I say flatly to the crews.
One man, impossibly symmetrical and attractive, in a bright blue suit approaches me and explains that they only need a few clips and a few soundbites of me explaining who the President is to the children. As though they haven’t lived through the last three years like the rest of us. As though some of them don’t overhear their parents’ arguing over shit he’s said on television or see his loud ads play before their favorite YouTube videos.
“Just basic stuff,” the anchor says, like there’s anything simple or basic about explaining the media circus to a group of children. I think of Watkins’ warning in the auditorium about indoctrinating the children and it just makes me want to wild out all the more. Channel my inner Ms. Patty and pray I’m just as sharp and relentless as the real woman.
“Okay, children,” I say. “Let’s gather around and talk about why today is so—” Not special. Special is reserved for good things, like eating ice cream before dinner or the feeling of slipping into a bed with fresh sheets. We can’t give him ‘special.’ “Why today is so unique.”
Tommy’s hand shoots up. He’s an only child, and he’s always unflagging and bold at just the right moments. He’s been obsessed with rockets and space recently. He probably thinks of his hand as blasting off.
“The President of the United States visits today!”
“Indeed, he does, Tommy,” I say.
“And what do we know about the President?” Watkins interjects. His sing-songy teacher voice sounds stupid. And who does he think he is to ask my kids anything?
“Sure. What do we know about the President?” I repeat, so Watkins knows none of his questions matter unless they come out of my mouth.
“Um,” Sophia says, her hand barely raised above her head. “He lives in a big, white house.” She looks exactly like her father, who comes alone on back-to-school-night and seems overly apologetic whenever I tell him Sophia struggled with a concept that he didn’t already know about. “I’m just a little overwhelmed,” he’d said once, and bowed his head just like she does when she’s shy or scared or confused. Since then, I’ve been sending even more encouraging notes home with Sophia in her book bag.
“Wonderful, Sophia,” I say.
“What else?” Watkins says, but this time, he’s less kids’ show voice actor and more no-nonsense tough guy, like he’s commanding a group of convicts instead of a class of ten confused, eager-to-please children.
“Hm,” I say. “Let’s see. To please Principal Watkins, is there anything else even minutely important about this president? Anything at all worth our time?” My kids look wide-eyed and scared. Maybe because I used the word “minutely” and that one wasn’t on their last spelling test, or they can pick up in my tone how annoyed I am, like how dogs can perceive the slightest signs of stress just by a human’s scent. I want to give them an education in this moment. And not the depoliticized kind. The real kind. The one that they remember when they’re adults, recounting in a hushed tone, Do you remember that one time Ms. Lauren snapped? Right now, I want to give them that memory, more than anything. But I don’t know what to tell them.
Well, sweethearts, I could say in a high octave, do we know he hates Mexicans and everyone brown? Do we know he touches women inappropriately like a nasty, dirty fox? Do we know he shirks responsibility for his actions and never apologizes, even though we all know the Golden Rule—the one posted on the door and above the cubbies and beside the art supplies—that if you hurt someone, at the very least, a decent human being apologizes? Do we know he doesn’t care when little people, just like you, my little cutie pies, are shoved into cages and left to rot like unwanted, no, unsold pet store hamsters? Do we know he’s a flaming, unquenchable dumpster fire, not worth even the “being” part of “human being”? Hm, kids? Do we know that, kids?
“Do we know?” I say instead. I want to pick up a bedazzled, fringed pillow and scream into it. “Which number president he is?”
Some kids shrug. Some kids count on their fingers as if that’ll help them figure it out. I lean back in my chair, glare at Watkins.
“Stop,” I mouth.
His shoulders droop. “Okay,” Watkins says to the crews. “You probably have enough.”
Watkins leads the children out of the classroom and toward the gym.
“I’m not the bad guy here,” Watkins says as we walk down the hallway. The camera crews follow us like our posse, but they’re far enough away that he knows they can’t hear. Maybe Watkins isn’t the bad guy, but he isn’t the good guy either, and that’s the problem with him. That’s the problem with so many people in power. No, maybe they aren’t the ones strangling someone on camera or punting a child across the hallway like a football, but they aren’t loving and kind and supportive. I can’t think of a time when Watkins walked through a lunch period just to clap the kids on the back and say hello. Or started a meeting with a “How are you?” instead of a laundry list of demands. I can’t think of a moment when he’s been gentle yet firm, soft yet protective in the way the rest of us are supposed to be.
“I’m in this mess just like all of you,” he adds.
“Is that so?” I say, opening the gym door and letting through my teetering class.
“Then why aren’t you angrier?” I say, wishing I could say more. Wishing I could yell over all the little heads with bows and barrettes. Tell him he with his tiny bit of power may be scared, but just imagine how much more scared he’d be without that. Powerless like the rest of us. That he doesn’t get to create a mess and then blame the kid next to him.
“It’s a question of public image, Ms. Lauren,” he says so matter-of-factly that I’m surprised he doesn’t add duh! at the end. “Like it or not, if we want more funding, we have to make ourselves look good.”
“And don’t you think it’s funny,” I say, my tone even-keeled, “how that always seems to involve me or Ms. Patty?”
He stares at me blankly, like I hadn’t said anything at all.
“Ms. Patty tends to over-blow things,” he says. “I don’t know if she’s the best ally, Ms. Lauren.”
He is calm and speaks the way he always does, overly polite and detached. For him, this is just another president. Another man in a suit coming to our school—a good publicity moment for both parties. He probably thinks of me as dramatic, even though I am not. What is dramatic about wanting to protect ten kids from the bullshit of the world? Just ten. That’s all I want. Not the millions who need it. Just give me these ten and their love for unicorns and space.
“Principal Watkins, Ms. Patty is my best and only ally.” And even though I said it level-headed and monotone, I know I’ve officially thrust myself into whatever category he keeps Ms. Patty in his head (black ladies, subcategory: crazy).
Do we know he’s a flaming, unquenchable dumpster fire? Hm, kids?
“I’m sorry to hear you think so,” he says. I scan his face for any glimpse of sincerity, but his annoyance is as thick as lacquer. Maybe outside of this school, outside of this job, we’d be able to talk through this. Or, and in a more likely reality, we’d never meet in the first place. That’s certainly how our honored guest would like it. But all I know is I don’t want the Watkins who worries about school politics and photo ops. If he’s in there, I want whoever Watkins was when he got into this business, that young Watkins who maybe can see where Ms. Patty and I are coming from. The Watkins that gets why letting a wolf into my classroom isn’t just publicity, it’s betrayal. Just another tiny moment of being black and feeling nuts.
“Shall we?” he gestures for me to walk through the door first.
Maybe I am dramatic, I worry. But honestly, I’m not sure what the hell else to be.
We enter the gym and there’s a banner that reads, “Welcome to Polk Elementary!” that stretches across the back of the gym wall. We used the same banner when some B-list celebrity came to town to promote his nutrition non-profit. I usher my kids to the bleachers to join the rest of the two hundred students we tore from their classes for an hour—time they could’ve spent learning something. I stand with the other teachers in the front row as nearly shriveled red balloons bounce by our feet. Even though I can picture Watkins coming in early, filling every balloon with his own breath and annoying the janitor to get the banner just right, everything about this gym reads low-budget and careless. I stand between Ms. Patty and Watkins.
“I may just lose my mind,” Ms. Patty says.
“Patty,” Watkins says. “Give the good fight a rest for one day, maybe?”
She laughs, the gruff sound that says, What are you, an idiot or something? “Ronald,” she says. “Does that sound like me?”
“The man is coming to read to children. Reading is fundamental, is it not?”
“Oh, he read now?” Ms. Patty says and she laughs so hard, it gets her shoulders going. When I laugh too, Watkins frowns at me like I’m a teenager who got in with the wrong crowd.
“C’mon, man. You know this is horseshit,” I say to him. Ms. Patty cuts me a look that says she’s simultaneously surprised by me and proud of me. I try not to smile too hard.
1. Because I don’t want to annoy Ms. Patty, and 2. I don’t want to betray how proud I am of myself for using “horseshit” to Watkins’ face on school grounds.
Watkins raises his finger like he’s about to reprimand me for language, which I wish he would, because Ms. Patty would probably leap on top of him. But then we notice a man none of us have seen before, which isn’t okay nowadays. He’s in a black suit with a black tie like he’s about to recruit us all for a secret mission. There’s a hush as he struts across the gym floor and cuts a path right through the deflated balloons like he doesn’t even see them. I panic that he’s a shooter or something, but he moves so quickly that I don’t have time to act before he’s standing in front of us.
“Mr. Watkins?” he says. He doesn’t reach out his hand or explain who he is. He just leans into Watkins, whispers something.
Watkins shakes his head a few times. “Well, that’s too bad,” he says sadly. The man nods, turns on his heel with the sharpness of a sergeant and leaves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone complete a task more efficiently. His exit prompts all the kids to talk at once, probably with a million different and equally wild theories on who Mr. Men-in-Black just was.
“He can’t make it,” Watkins says to me and Patty. “A high-level emergency,” he says, and I don’t know if he’s quoting the man in the suit or if Watkins is just that gullible.
“Students,” Watkins shouts over the noise. “Unfortunately, the President can’t join us today. Something important came up, and he’s heading to DC immediately. Time to head back to class!”
The kids start filing down the bleacher stairs.
“See? All that hullabaloo for nothing,” Watkins says to me, relieved, like he’s just skirted a punishment. Only, today wasn’t totally pointless. I know I’ll never trust him with anything ever again.
Watkins goes to talk to the camera crews who, without any reason to be at a podunk elementary school in Nowhere, New Jersey, pack up quickly.
I wave theatrically and wait for my little sweethearts to find me. I make eye contact with a few of them and they look overwhelmed, watching all the big kids go down the stairs.
“Alright, help the little people now!” Ms. Patty yells at her eighth graders. “Who raised y’all, huh?”
Hand-in-hand, Ms. Patty’s eighth graders guide my kids down. They shout questions at me, too eager to wait until they’ve reached the bottom.
“Where’s the President, Ms. Lauren?”
“Did he have to run home, Ms. Lauren?”
“Did he have an emergency and he had to take a helicopter?”
They smile and bounce toward me, still clutching Ms. Patty kids’ hands.
“Yes, he had to go home,” I say. And they all nod, that little explanation apparently good enough for now.
We shuffle back into our classroom. They sit on the floor, some of them overlapping on giant pillows, like puppies. I settle in my chair with a few books in my lap. Today, I’ll let them choose what they want to hear. I’ve pulled the shades down so there’s a blue glow to the room like we’re all nestled at the bottom of the ocean. They’re safe and unconcerned, the way they deserve to be.
“Okay, dears,” I say, and they all lean forward, attentive, eager, and ready to hear every word. I spread the four little books out of my lap, vivid and kaleidoscopic. Some of them stretch their necks to see, others stay plopped on the floor, too content to move. “I’m leaving it up to you.”
They point and put their fingers to their chins, deep in concentration. A few nod off, satisfied with letting someone else decide. I don’t rush them. I let them take their time. I let them sit with the books, rest with them on their laps. I let them flip through the pages, glance at the pictures of smiling animals and cartwheeling girls. Knowing how rare and infrequent true peace really is, I let them breathe.
Jade Jones was born and raised in Southern New Jersey. A former Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, she is a graduate of Princeton University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. She is a Lecturer in Writing Arts at Rowan University, where she teaches first year writing and creative writing and serves as the Managing Editor of Glassworks.
Her story, “Today You’re A Black Revolutionary,” originally published in The Rumpus, won the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
You can find her on Twitter at @jadereginajones and on Instagram at @jaderjones.