‘The Teacher’ by James Nulick

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Beautiful people always get what they want. Thin people always get what they want. I am neither thin nor beautiful. My only advantage is my sex, but even my sex is invisible, because when people see me, when they do notice me, however briefly, they only see fat – a fat woman. She is a fat woman, an obese woman. She is a disgusting woman, a lazy woman. She is unattractive, and in the way. Whatever adjectives they use, the words are always the same, and possess the same intent – to make me invisible. But I am here, you see, I am in the classroom with your children, in a small office with your children. I spend time with them, alone, likely more time than you – their parents – spend with them. I listen to them, document their lies, their becoming. The older children, the eleven and twelve year olds, are lying animals, sexual animals brutally navigating the outer perimeters of the adult world – the cruel jokes, the obscene gestures. I watch them twitch in their seats, their bodies already hard and muscular, ungiving, their breasts small blossoms opening to unseen hands.

***

I catalog their desires, their fears. Who hovers over them at night? Who touches this boy, whispers lies to this girl? I gently place my hands on either side of their scalp and split their heads open, like a melon, to see what is inside. I am trusted, a paid professional, I possess the correct pieces of paper, the documents that proclaim I belong, and yet still I walk through the world as if there were not another soul in it, as if I alone survived a great cataclysm. I am here, and because I am invisible, because the world has decided I am invisible, I am free to document its lies, its iniquities. I do this with the carefully scribbled notebooks of the cartographer, the human heart a map I have underscored many times yet still do not understand. Those who claim to understand it are liars, as are most men, men with hearts beating in their chests. The only man who isn’t a liar is a dead man. I smooth my dress, tamp my collar, put on a human face, an obese face, and open the door. You do not see me but I am here, with your children.

***

I was born thirty years too late. My time is not my time, and I do not belong here. Mother says I have a 1940s sensibility, and I agree. She should know, she was born during that time, when the Great War was winding down. The future had been upended, yet the State prospered, and in that prosperous time, a great many people were born. Mother is one of those people. I came in the great hereafter, a time of cocaine and selfishness, and terrible music. I prefer sundresses, hats, modest, natural makeup – a complete covering of the body. Too many are willing to divulge the secrets of the body too quickly. There is no mystery left in the world, just show and tell. Those who show the most get the most stars, the most clicks, the most votes. Some even vote for themselves. What the star-gatherers don’t realize is that one becomes very old very quickly when one is chasing emptiness. I prefer sunlight, and the darkness of a classroom in early summer, when May is in full bloom, when the children have just a few weeks left of classes, and the clock is sitting at 3:15. I prefer solitude, and quiet, and people who do not show me things upon first meeting them. Mother and I enjoy cards, double solitaire, our packs north and south of each other, across the dining room table, or on nights when mother is restless, thirty-one, though I am not competitive or a gambler by nature. Mother and I also like game shows, and singing contests, where the star-gathering is lighthearted and artificial, and everyone on screen knows their boundaries and respects them. Perhaps this is why I am alone.

***

Some would say I am exceedingly plain. Others, ugly. It must be a terrible burden to be beautiful, to have others look at you with only one thing in mind, yet it is what I have always wanted. We always want what we cannot have – at least that is the general consensus. I don’t believe it, though. Mother says if we can visualize it, it can be ours. To be a slab of meat on a hook, to be massaged and brushed and waited on like the special cattle in Japan. Secretly this is what every woman wants, to be waited on, to be a princess in her room, surrounded by beautiful things. I have friends who exist outside my door – real friends, beautiful female friends, and they all say the same thing. He swept me off my feet. He was so handsome, and he told me I was his princess. I got married in a white dress on the beach… But must a woman define herself by a man, by having or not having a man? If a younger woman is alone, a woman in her thirties or early forties, she is suspect – yet when a man in his thirties or forties is alone, he is called a bachelor, or restless, or on the market, such a terrible phrase. It all comes back to being a piece of meat on a hook, which is what we all want, if we are honest with ourselves. The secret is who’s hook and who’s freezer?

***

I am not a Beth, or a Liz, or the dreaded Lisa. I am Elizabeth. My last name, Salas, is a palindrome. It has a slightly Satanic look to it, don’t you agree? It is the same forwards as it is backwards, which could also be said of me… I am the same today as I was yesterday – alone. I have mother, but Mother doesn’t have me, never wanted me. She has told me this on several occasions, usually while we are arguing over some ridiculous small nothing. You’re just like your father, Elizabeth. I don’t want to watch this program, kindly change it! You are so stubborn, Elizabeth! I’d tell you just wait, just wait until you have children of your own, but of course you won’t, what man would have you? What man would want you? Your father was an idiotic man, he wanted children but he couldn’t even keep a steady job, so impractical… you are just like him. You want the child but you have to find a man first, my dear. I told him I didn’t want children but he didn’t believe me, as if not wanting children was somehow a Satanic, ungodly thing – what kind of woman doesn’t want children? She must be the devil! Your father was a Texas fieldworker through and through, and every time I look at you, I see him. You both are so stupid, big and stupid. He’s probably dead by now – Mother! – too dumb to stay alive. It’s the truth, dear, the sooner you accept the truth, the better off you’ll be.

***

I teach children. To be more specific, I teach fifth grade. I am in the classroom again after having been out of it for so long. I have a Masters in counseling, and I used to be a counselor. I had a small office in my primary location, and would visit five other schools to counsel children in need. I always felt like an intruder at the hub schools, using an office that wasn’t mine, talking with administrative staff who would nod at me as if I were not in the room, just a phantom presence in a sun dress. And the teachers – regular homeroom teachers – they are by far the worst. They treat professional staff – counselors, speech therapists – as if they are underlings to be spat upon. Oddly, paraprofessionals are treated with more respect than licensed counselors. When I was a counselor, I’d walk into the teacher’s lounge and the old women would clam up, speaking in tongues about such and such, who was the dumbest child, how many pallets of X they bought at Costco the previous evening. I began in the classroom as a homeroom teacher, grade five, earned a Master’s degree in counseling, was an elementary school counselor for eleven years, and here I am now, forty-three years old and back in the classroom again, the last place I wanted to be. I’d taught in the classroom for seven years, not liking a single minute of it. The children are animals, cataloging and giving voice to every fault. You’re so fat, Ms. Salas. Your fingers are so fat, Ms. Salas. Why do you have so many freckles, Ms. Salas –

***

It is during the early teens when children truly begin learning how to lie, holding things back, and always for their own preservation. It comes with the first blood ruining an innocent pair of panties, the first ejaculation in the privacy of a bedroom, hovering over an image on a phone, forgetting how to walk. A girl forgets how to walk and she turns dark, has boys on her mind, and never again will she trust another woman, including her own mother. These are skinny girls, of course. Even tomboys eventually get away with murder once their breasts threaten to push through their shirts, loud as rhododendrons in June. But a fat girl, an ugly girl, a girl with broken glasses and a wardrobe from Goodwill, they will forever be invisible. And yet women are still evil toward other women, fat or otherwise – there is no distinctive class, no sense of communalism, not even a reading club… I walk through a school hallway on my way to my small grey office and it’s as if I’m not there. Children scatter, grouped in clans and lost in their cell phones, and adults look to an invisible point on the horizon, their lips pressed tightly against the natural urge to say hello.

***

I have very few friends, and they are only acquaintances, if I am honest with myself. There is Jeffrey at my home school, a wisp of a man who teaches fifth grade, and sometimes we have lunch together… I watch him as he straightens his tie, his eyes lost on a boy’s behind. He has a partner, an anonymous something lacking any distinctive facial features. He has short hair, I remember that – I’ve met him a few times, have passed a pleasant evening with him, but we sit across the dinner table from each other and commit to nothing. I don’t want another queer in my life, I want a man. I once had a student come into the classroom while I was reviewing afternoon lessons – they were at lunch – and in walks Marcus, who is handsome, you know, he has a dumb sort of handsomeness. Mr. Goldhagen, my zipper’s stuck. And well you know I have to be good, but here I am fidgeting with this kid’s zipper, my knuckles brushing against his you know what, and thinking if someone walks in right now – You’re so silly, Jeffrey, I say, but I can see the evil behind it because I am invisible, I do not figure into anyone’s calculations, I am less than nothing when the day is tallied and forgotten. There are others, a woman who teaches a fourth fifth combo… we occasionally have lunch together. She is thin but unhappy, she is married to an unpleasant man who is cheating on her. I don’t know what to do, Elizabeth – we’ve been together nine years, and I don’t want to lose Bill. Have you thought of counseling, I suggest. She shakes her head, already thinking of the unpleasant drive home. I am secretly happy knowing it is possible for a thin woman to experience unhappiness – but I am pleasant, and I smile, knowing that she will go home once again to a terrible man and I will go home to nothing, only Mother’s accusations.

***

The small insults one suffers daily. The hangnails, the knees that no longer work properly, the gradual betrayal of your own body, you need to lose weight, my doctor says, or both your knees will need to be replaced, him having said this before they were both replaced, the same soft flat black shoes I buy over and over again, the world’s largest ballerina, wondering just once what a pair of heels might feel like, younger teachers flitting to and fro on heels that betray the laws of physics, a child blatantly calling me fat – why are you so fat, Ms. Salas – stubbornly unmoving in his seat, dirty hands tucked under each armpit as a band of heat tightens around my head, a small tyrant in a district chair, well Luis different people have different bodies, surely you must know that by now? I know but why are you so fat, a smile pulling across his teeth, his very white teeth, a small theater curtain lifting, the heavy drapes of the old days, when waiting for a movie was an event because movies have long stopped being events worth waiting for, his white teeth a blank screen on which girls will see their reflection, the wonder bouncing back at them in a Henley and perfect shoes. I see his teeth, nestled in the healthy pink seat of his gums, a small tongue already capable of so much damage, and I wonder at the skull beneath the cinnamon skin, so round, perfect and white… we all have different bodies, Luis, you need to learn how to respect other people’s bodies, I place a hand on his knee and he pulls back, visibly startled, the fat woman daring to touch him – if you don’t learn how to respect other people’s bodies, perhaps someday you will be alone – No I won’t – perhaps someday someone beautiful will leave you, and I stop there, having moved into territory the district wouldn’t approve of, the child is protected by law against such behavior. Someday when you meet that special someone you should remember they deserve respect, just as you do… Maybe, he says, pulling his knee out from under my hand. He is handsome and he knows it, his only gift in a migrant trailer park life, his mother catering to him because of his looks, because he is her favorite, because of his perfect teeth, and already he is ruined.

The Teacher is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by James Nulick

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