It’s moose-building day. My ninth graders are up to their elbows in papier-mâché, wrapping pulpy newspaper around balloons, the art room awhirl with turpentine and hormones. Pilar and Dmitri knock over a gray slop bucket and kiss. I’m shaping antlers, forgetting about the other places a twenty-three-year-old guy could be right now: surfing in New Zealand? Training in avalanche control?
Avalanches still tempt me, but I’m a public school teacher, at least this year. And I will survive seven more months of adolescents scraping metal stools.
“Attention,” a voice crackles on the loudspeaker. The principal’s too-young voice, sputtering: “This is a lockdown.”
Dmitri and Pilar freeze, look at me. My stomach drops, my gluey hands shake. The words from our training: “John Doe is in the building.”
During drills, we were always drawing in pencil. Why does a real intruder have to come when we’re covered in wet glue?
“Teachers, secure all exits.”
Right. That’s me.
Camille is quicker. Student Government Star in Pearls, she shepherds classmates into the kiln room. I grab keys, folder, attendance and emergency cards.
“Mr. B., can I go to my locker?” asks Alice with Broken Glasses. DREAM is written in Sharpie on masking tape, holding her glasses together.
“No,” I say, tripping over a metal stool that crashes, announcing our presence for miles. Great move.
“I need my inhaler,” gasps Alice.
My heart. My heart. I tell her to keep breathing, use a paper bag (good idea?) and put Edgar Wu in charge of her. The first day of class, he said, “I’m Edgar . . . like the Allan Poe guy?”
Most of the students are following Camille, but the stragglers are digging through backpacks, looking at phones, chatting. “It’s not a drill!” I squeak. Diego is crying; Sara is texting; Mohammed grabs a fistful of rainbow pastels.
I lock the children inside this room with silent coiled ovens that rise to 3,000 degrees, but no one will press the switch. I have to believe. Cherry red glaze: firing temperature 1,652 Fahrenheit.
Keys, keys. Shut off lights, lock from outside. Protocol. Out in the hallway, the air feels icy. I wave to two running girls.
“We’re not in your class,” says Goth Girl, sneering.
“I’m everyone’s teacher,” I say, reaching for hands, reeling them in.
I close the door, hearing only my jagged breaths, the clinking of keys. As I lock up, I can’t see who is behind me, and my back feels cold and exposed. I’m the teacher. I die first. No avalanches, even. If you want a brilliant white glaze, you need 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit.
Back in the kiln room, students are smashed together, sweaty, lying in a heap like puppies. Alice breathes fast, steady, Edgar’s hand glued to hers.
I call attendance in a whisper. Each name sounds new, strange. I never thought before about the parents, the people who chose these names. Why did someone pick the name Pilar? Dmitri? Adeyemi? What did they hope for? If anyone is hurt, I will slip a red card under the door. If we’re all OK, I will use the green one.
I phone the main office: busy.
“What about our moose?” asks Rafael, Boy Who Swims in Cologne.
“Shhh!” says Camille, who led us here.
“I have a quiz on Things Fall Apart next period,” whispers Adeyemi. “I didn’t read it.”
“Read to us,” I suggest. Adeyemi flips through his cheap cardboard-reinforced book, yellowed pages creating a world of sweet mustiness.
Who is doing this? Is it one of us? Max, who sculpted dead cows and decapitated chickens before dropping my class? Max with his faint mustache the color of ripe apricots? Max who smelled of baby powder? Max with his Sponge Bob backpack? How could I think Max? How could I think of any of my moose builders?
And then I do something teachers are not supposed to do. I begin to cry. But only in the corners of my eyes.
“This is the beginning,” said Adeyemi, reading. “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond . . .”
Maybe that’s all the moose builders want, to be well known like Okonkwo. And they want me to know them. I am gripping the green card, looking into all the wide-eyed, soft-cheeked faces. Pilar, here. Dmitri, here. Edgar, here. Camille, here. Rafael, here. Alice, here. Diego, here. Mohammed, here. Adeyemi, here. I’m the teacher, I can love everyone in this tiny room, my avalanche is beginning, and I am here. We are all here.
Jess deCourcy Hinds is a former fiction fellow with Pen Parentis. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Quarterly West, The New York Times, Ms., Newsweek,Literary Hub,and Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. Lauren Groff chose “The Art Teacher” as the runner-up for the 2017 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. This is its first time being published. Hinds is working on a novel. Find out more at @HindsJess.