The school, a series of cinder-block boxes, is set in sand amid a scrub-pine forest. The principal, gray-haired with heavy jowls and hooded eyes, leads Anne down the buckled sidewalk to the second-grade classroom. There, twenty-two children sit in four straight rows facing the blackboard. Twenty-two small, dark faces, dazed and damp, though it’s only ten o’clock in the morning. Above the blackboard a paper banner reads Good Penmanship: The Key to Success. In the front row, a small girl dozes beneath a cloud of gnats.
“Your replacement is here,” Principal Scott tells the teacher with the dark half-moons under her arms.
The principal has turned to go before Anne can think of what to say. She’s speechless, but not with surprise. This is what one must expect if one is to make a difference.
“I’m tired of teaching well-fed, middle-class white children,” she told her friends. “It’s time to change my game.” Her friends were too kind to point out that her particular game had already been changed for her. Nevertheless, it was Anne who quit her job and traded the green pastures of Virginia for the hard-baked sod and swamps of central Florida.
Her footsteps echo on the concrete-and-steel stairwell of her new apartment building. Inside, stained linoleum floors, venetian blinds, casement windows, sticky brown cabinets. It smells like a basement. It’s perfect.
Early Monday morning in her new classroom, Anne pushes the desks together into groups of four. She moves the bookcase to the window to make a reading area where she’ll read to the children every day, books like The Wind in the Willows and Stuart Little. She places a goldfish and a revolving fan on the bookcase.
“Hello,” she says to each child. “Glad to have you.”
“You the teacher?” asks a slender child with large dark eyes and pretty white teeth. “I Leticia Regina DuBois,” she says, pivoting so her blue skirt swishes. Her hair is braided into tiny straight rows converging into a nub and fastened with a crisp blue ribbon. “I help you. I help all-them.”
“Thank you, Leticia, but I know what to do.”
“Lettie,” the child says. “You call me Lettie.”
“Thank you, Lettie. You can take a seat now.”
“Now, that one,” Lettie says, pointing to a small boy with a large Afro, “he Tommy. He the baby of us. And that one, Isaac. He real smart. And that one, Mickey. She not.” Lettie slips her hand into Anne’s. It’s warm and dry like a little bird.
“Everyone, please find a seat and we’ll get started,” Anne calls. The children continue to mill around the room; several boys shove each other against the back wall.
“Let me,” Lettie says. “Hush, y’all! Teacher say sit down.” Wooden chairs scrape the floor as they sit.
“Hello, my name is—”
“No,” Lettie says. “You got to tell them where to sit. Else they carry on.”
“I would like us to learn how to make our own choices. Class, my name is Ms. Carter. That’s Ms. with a z-sound, not Miss.”
“Now, Mickey, here,” Lettie says, “she got to sit up front, else she sleep. Ain’t that right, Mickey?” Mickey, a large child wearing what looks like a woman’s housedress, rises from her seat and waits to be moved.
“C-c-come...M-m-moth-a...s-say,” Michael reads from an ancient primer, uttering one soft, rounded syllable every five seconds.
“Come, Motha say,” Lettie prompts.
“Mother says,” Anne says. The other students are supposed to be practicing the cursive letter “a” on the blackboard, but most have lined up behind her chair to ask questions, pushing and jostling each other until the belly of the “a” is gone.
“Mzz?” Lettie says, “Mickey go to the res’ room an’ not come back. You want me roun’ her up?”
Noon begins with a sloppy march to the cafeteria trailer, where most receive free lunch—a peanut butter sandwich, a carton of milk, and a bleached cookie. Only Mickey brings from home, a status she savors as she struts to the front of the line. Inside her wrinkled paper bag is a fish sandwich, always a fish sandwich, head and tail intact on dry white bread.
Several girls gather around Anne’s chair, touch her hair, and ask questions about her life. The nutty smell of their hair pleases her.
“You got chil-ren, Teacher?”
“You got you a husband?”
“You got you a house? You got a TV?”
“Nope,” she says. “No babies. No husband. You don’t have to get married to have a house or a TV, you know. You work hard in school, you go to college, and you get a job. Then you can have whatever you want.”
The girls look at each other and giggle.
“But we want babies,” someone says.
When they return to their seats, Anne finds a bleached cookie on her desk.
Mark will love this, she thinks, before the wallop of his absence hits her once again.
August was hot, but September is hotter. The droning fan sends baked air into every corner of the classroom. Anne’s face is slick with oil and her hair bushes out of control. She wears lightweight khaki pants and sleeveless polo shirts to school, yet she’s cold in the morning and hot in the afternoon. She’s been told that her northern blood will adapt to the heat, but it’s not yet thin enough to flow where needed. Like honey left too long on a shelf, it’s thickened and crystallized, leaving her half-stunned and stupid.
The children plod through the day, arguing and scuffling; they stare blankly at Anne when she teaches. There are significant differences in academic ability. A few read well above grade level, while others can’t read at all. The reading primers are old and full of middle-class white children. Even the dog is white with spots. When Anne asks the principal for permission to order new books, she’s told that this year’s budget has already been spent.
“Maybe next year,” Principal Scott says from behind her desk while fanning herself with an empty manila folder. “If you’re still with us.”
After lunch Anne longs to put her head down on her desk and sleep.
“Recess, Mzz,” Lettie whispers in her ear. “You take us outside and we run ’round till we too tired to carry on.”
From her chair in the shade, Anne watches the children roam about the sandlot with its wobbling swing set and rusted jungle gym. They race each other to the swings, then fight over who goes first. The swings screech, the cicadas scream, and the teacher sweats.
She’s dozing when the double doors to the main building clank open. Out comes a creature with one head and many legs. Shuffling slowly down the walk toward Anne, a tall, slender woman with five misshapen children clinging to her arms. A swan tethered by toads.
“They spesh-ed,” Lettie says, turning Anne’s chin her way. Her fingers are cool and dry. “You know.”
Despite the hangers-on, the woman glides in her filmy blue dress and red strappy sandals. Her long, black hair spills over her shoulders like an ebony waterfall.
“Hey there,” she says, wrenching a hand free—a slender, olive-skinned hand—to shake Anne’s. Her face is round, her eyes, large and liquid brown. She smells of gardenias. “Principal Scott said you drive in from Reedsville every day. We should ride together.”
“Yes,” Anne says, unwilling to part with the lovely breeze this woman has brought with her.
At the end of the day, Anne reads to her students from Stuart Little. They sit on a carpet remnant she’s found by the road and listen, wide-eyed.
“Why they got a rat for a chile?” someone asks.
“An’ why he got to sleep in a box?”
Mickey brings to school Walt Disney’s Uncle Remus Stories. They beg Anne to read it “like it say,” then they laugh at her when she tries. She will read it, she tells them, if they’ll listen to her record album, Free to be You and Me.
“Things are different now,” Anne says. “It’s 1973. You can be whatever you want to be.”
“She mus’ be talkin’ ’bout makin’ ’tend,” Lettie says.
When the reading carpet becomes gritty with sand, Anne brings in her upright vacuum cleaner. The children jump about and scream when she turns it on.
“Looky there,” Tommy shouts. “Teacher got her britches on a stick!”
Anne writes these things in a little notebook she keeps in her desk because Mark will be amused. Mark, who will also be surprised to know that she’s doing something to make a difference. Mark, who called her frivolous when he left.
Isobel’s home is a double-wide perched on cinder blocks near the edge of town. In the morning she emerges through a metal storm door with a tall, red-haired man following close behind.
“Charlie Murphy here!” he booms, thrusting a big, freckled hand through Anne’s car window. He lopes to the other side to open Isobel’s door, then deposits her bags on the back seat. “Take care of my princess,” he says as they pull away.
“Well now you’ve met my husband,” Isobel says. “Good old Charlie.”
When Isobel drives it’s lovely to climb into the chilled, leather interior of her Cadillac at the end of a sticky-hot day. Once on the road, Isobel pushes in the lighter and pulls from the glove compartment a little tin of rolled joints. Her cheeks flush and her silver earrings twinkle as she inhales.
“There we go,” she says, offering the cigarette to Anne.
The Cadillac becomes an ocean liner forging through shimmering blue road heat past moss-draped trees, faded wood shacks, skinny dogs, and stray chickens, but Anne can see beauty in all of it—tiny shoots of grass pushing up through hard-baked earth, calm fortitude in the eyes of skeletal cattle, brave optimism in the names scrawled on roadside mailboxes.
She’s meant to be here. She’s an emissary sent from far away to this scrub-pine wasteland, the carrier of truth to forgotten children. Her message? It’s a new world; you can be whatever you choose to be.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Annie,” Isobel says, brushing Anne’s arm with the back of her hand. “I can tell we’re going to be really close.”
Halfway home they pass a residential area, seven or eight cottages with small front lawns and picket fences. A For Sale sign hangs in front of the house nearest the road. The house is small and worn, but not without charm. The clapboard siding is bright white; the shutters, sea blue. Starched white café curtains would look nice in the gabled windows. Anne would put something in the window boxes that could stand the heat. Vinca vine, maybe. The front door with its small, round window should be stripped to show the wood. If she and Isobel lived there, they’d be closer to school. They could sit on the little front porch in the evening and watch the sun set.
“Good stuff, isn’t it?” Isobel says. “The grass. Charlie grows it.”
“You won’t tell.”
“He’s looking for work in the recording business. It’s only till then.”
“Oh. What do you do with them all day?”
“Do with who? Whom?”
“Not much,” Isobel says and laughs. Her laugh is like a tinkling bell.
“How do you keep them busy?”
“I have toys. A jar of candy. Etch-a-Sketch. Taffy.”
“It must be depressing.”
“It is what it is,” she says, flicking her ash onto the floor with a long slender finger.
Back at Isobel’s, Charlie bounds from the trailer as they pull into the driveway. Anne imagines him waiting by the window all day. He opens Isobel’s door, collects her things, and invites Anne to stay with a promise of some really fine weed.
The faculty meeting begins at 2:45 p.m., but everyone is already seated when Anne arrives at 2:40 p.m. They sit at a table in the cafeteria trailer that smells as much like sour milk now as it did at lunchtime. The other teachers, six middle-aged, women wearing dresses, hose, heels, and cardigans buttoned at the top, nod to her and murmur greetings. Isobel is absent.
Principal Scott rocks back in her chair and taps the table. “Meet our new teacher, Anne Carter, from Virginia. I know y’all will do your best to make her comfortable.” The woman’s low drawl and hooded eyes smack of sarcasm, but Anne can’t be sure.
The teachers must complete attendance forms first thing every morning so the school can get funding. If a child moves away, they are to treat it like an absence for as long as possible. School supplies must last the year. The principal drones on to a chorus of mm-hmms and the crinkling of breath mint wrappers. The teachers are to sign up for bus duty, lunch duty, playground duty, hallway bulletin board decoration, and PTA refreshments.
“Couldn’t we ask the parents to help out with some of this?” Anne says. “That’s what we did up north.”
“Mm-hmm, that’d be nice,” the teachers say.
“Honey,” Principal Scott says, “if you can find the parents, you can ask them.”
The meeting dribbles on. Thick packets of Florida State Standards are handed out. Anne asks where art supplies are kept; the teachers chortle.
“Where were you?” Anne asks Isobel on the way home.
“I don’t go to those. I’m federally-funded,” she says.
In October the weather breaks and Anne makes changes in the classroom. She finds more suitable readers and hand-copies them onto mimeograph stencils to make booklets. She sets up individual learning stations equipped with cassette players, headphones, and worksheets. She designs a point system whereby the children receive Popsicle sticks for completed worksheets. She fills a cardboard box, decorated with wallpaper scraps and glitter, with cheap trinkets. Her students will listen to lessons on tape, complete worksheets, and then trade the worksheets for Popsicle sticks. On Fridays the Popsicle sticks can be exchanged for trinkets from the treasure box. She uses her own money to buy Matchbox cars, sets of jacks, pop beads, and such to stock the box.
The new system works. The children enjoy earning their sticks and browsing through the treasure box. Since Lettie is the first to finish, she’s put in charge of distributing the sticks. The classroom becomes a place of industry, with children moving from station to station in pursuit of treasure. Mark would be impressed.
Anne waits in her car for Isobel in the pouring rain. Finally, a red, stadium-size umbrella blooms from the trailer, followed by Isobel, and then Charlie, who holds the umbrella over Isobel’s head but not his own.
“Your scepter, milady,” he says, collapsing the umbrella and handing it to Isobel. She smiles and grants her cheek for a kiss.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, “Charlie couldn’t find the umbrella.”
“Where is everyone?” Anne asks when only eight children show up in the classroom.
“It the rain,” Lettie says. “They don’ like to be wet.”
“But they’ll miss their sticks. And story time.”
“It alright, Mzz,” Lettie says, patting Anne’s arm. “Maybe we put candy in the box-o-treasure when it rain.”
“Stay a while?” Isobel says when Anne drops her off after school. “I’ll play for you.”
Isobel’s piano is like her car, grand and gleaming. It takes up most of the tiny living room. Anne sits outside on the steps as Isobel plays a concerto. Anne feels lifted above the trees then set down gently on the sun-warmed concrete, only to be lifted again and again, as though Isobel knows her well and has chosen the piece just for her.
The spell is broken by the racket of motorcycles in the yard when Charlie and his friend Nigel arrive. They want to know when dinner will be and they want to talk about their day. They could be twins, these tall, thin wraiths with their scraggly ponytails and bloodshot eyes. Isobel feeds them all. Fish sticks and creamed spinach.
Anne is reading Stuart Little to the children when the tittering begins. “What is it?” she asks. The story is not especially funny, like some.
Lettie points to the window where a flatbed truck inches its way down the narrow dirt road beside the school. The truck carries a small white house with broken windows, sagging roof, and peeling paint. The front porch droops over the side of the truck bed.
“I don’t get it,” Anne says as the children roll around the carpet, helpless with laughter.
“See,” Lettie says, trying to catch her breath. “Somebody be movin’ away but they takin’ they ol’ raggedy-shack house with them.”
“Let’s split,” Isobel says, ducking into Anne’s classroom on PTA Night.
“We can’t; it’s not over yet.”
“No one’s coming. No one ever comes. If they come, they come for the refreshments and leave.” Isobel reapplies her lipstick, a new shade of pink.
Anne has had two visitors, Mickey’s and Lettie’s mothers. Mrs. Dubois came to tell her that Lettie wants to be a teacher because of Anne; Mickey’s mother for the cookies.
Isobel says they should go somewhere, maybe a bar. Did Anne know that Nigel plays keyboard in a band at a place near there?
“I counted ten women and two men tonight. Where are the fathers?” Anne says in the car. She doesn’t count Lettie’s mother because she’s the school janitor.
“You won’t see their fathers. They don’t see them either.” Isobel lights a joint and coughs. She’s made up her eyes with black liner and dark blue shadow. “You dance, don’t you? Let’s go as a couple and drive them crazy.”
Inside the cool, smoky grotto, the bass booms. Isobel glides to the center of the dance floor, undulating to the pulsing beat. Nigel, sitting at keyboard, watches her. Everyone watches her. Anne stands at the bar, feeling bound by her khaki skirt, until Isobel reaches for her and pulls her onto the dance floor. Isobel’s skirt swirls about her long tanned legs, and her tinkling laugh matches the melody. Soon Anne is moving to the music. It’s a game; it’s fun. When the band breaks, they find a booth and Nigel joins them. He leans in to light Isobel’s cigarette and her face lights up.
In March the evenings are warm again. Charlie sets up lawn chairs and puts his stereo speakers on the front steps. The oaks have new leaves and the air is sweet with gardenia. Anne watches the light fade from a cobalt sky. She’s free to melt into the background with this group; her presence is valued more as an observer than as a participant—a fact that leaves her relieved as well as lonely. She watches them like she watches her students, though less and less with an eye for what might amuse Mark. The idea of Mark’s amusement has begun to rankle. Even if the things she’s done to impress him happen to be the best things she’s ever done.
Anne has noticed that Nigel isn’t really like Charlie after all. Charlie is taut and wiry, while Nigel is muscular and laid-back. His hair, loose tonight, falls over his shoulders in honey-brown waves.
“I’m a fool to bother,” Charlie proclaims as he lurches about, passing the hash pipe back and forth. “College boys don’t know how good my shit is. A fool to bother.” He’s stopped now behind Isobel’s chair, sunk his big hands into her glossy hair. Isobel smiles sleepily as he gathers the silky length of it, lifts it, and lets it fall down her back. Over and over he gathers, lifts, and releases her hair until her head wobbles and she shouts for him to stop. Hangdog, he retreats to his chair.
Nigel stands, drops his cigarette, and paws at it with his boot.
Nigel—Anne will leave with Nigel; she’ll ask him for a ride home.
But it’s Isobel Nigel approaches. “Go for a ride?” he says, holding out his hand.
“Charlie?” Isobel says.
“Whatever,” Charlie says, not looking up.
Slender Isobel and giant Nigel climb onto Nigel’s Harley and roar down the driveway, Isobel’s dark hair streams silver under the streetlight.
“She’s gone,” Charlie tells Anne in the morning when she arrives to pick up Isobel. His eyes are more bloodshot than usual. It’s finally happened, he says, Isobel has left him and he deserves it. She’s too good and kind for him. She’s a princess, an angel, and he’s just a big ol’ country boy who tried to reach too high. He’s let her down by not earning the kind of living that would have enabled her to go to school to become a concert pianist. By not giving her the attention she deserves. Anne could never understand.
“You’re kidding, right?” Anne says.
What a fool, she thinks as she drives to school. Everyone knows the princess thing is exhausting. For everyone, but especially for the princess.
In the classroom, Lettie peers into Anne’s face. “Mzz?” she says, “You sick?” Anne counts ten yellow, bow-shaped plastic clips in Lettie’s hair.
“I’m just tired,” she says, which is true. She lies awake at night listening to the scuttling of cockroaches in the cupboards. And there have been no calls. Only a postcard from the Grand Canyon with a picture of the canyon rim in shadow, purple rimmed with black.
Having a Grand time! it says in Isobel’s large loopy script. Love, I & N.
Lettie has told her several times that the treasure box needs filling. “It the boys,” Lettie says. “Jus’ the boys, Teacher. We girls doin’ our work for free now.”
“Tell them whomever has the most sticks can have the goldfish when school is over.”
“Don’ you want Moby, Mzz? Those boys ain’ gonna feed it.”
The truth is, goldfish don’t travel well, and Anne is considering a job back in Virginia. Even privileged children have disabilities, don’t they?
The last week of school is so hot the children won’t go outside for recess. Anne sits in a stall in the bathroom with the door locked, waiting for the will to return to the classroom.
“Teacher? You sick again?” Two small, bright-white Keds with red, plastic strawberries tied to the laces point Anne’s way beneath the stall door. “Mzz? They be carryin’ on in there. Fred an’ them rootin’ around in the box-o-treasure, talkin’ trash.”
“Okay, Lettie, just give me a minute.”
“They say they ain’ got to do no work ’cause you ain’ fill the box. Teacher?”
Finally, the Keds pad away.
“Sit down, y’all!” Anne hears Lettie yell. “Teacher comin’ and she mad. She say she gonna throw that box-o-treasure out on the road so cars run it over and never give you nothin’ for you fool sticks again!
“You there—you boys! You think you gonna get money if you don’ work? You not. You not gonna get no money. Not gonna get no house. Not gonna get no car neither. Teacher lock herself up in there ’cause she sick of it. She sick of how y’all don’ do you best. She sick of it and she mad about it and she not gonna fill that box again till you do right!”
The water from the tap marked cold is warm and smells like sulfur when Anne splashes it on her face. The classroom is quiet when she returns. Children fidget at their desks while Lettie sits at Anne’s desk, monitoring the room with fierce eyes.
As the last day of school drags on, Anne finds less and less reason to announce her departure to her children, few of whom have shown up.
Tommy beams as he dumps forty-three popsicle sticks onto her desk. “Fo’ de fish,” he says when she stares.
“Never give up on your dreams,” she tells them as they clean out their desks. It sounds lame, even to her. When they leave, she takes Lettie aside. “You,” she tells her, fighting back tears, “are going to be a great teacher.”
“Don’ worry, Mzz,” Lettie says, patting Anne’s arm, “I visit you when I can.”
When the classroom empties, she sees that Tommy has forgotten the fish. Anne would like to flush it and leave; she has packing to do at home, but the child saved his Popsicle sticks to win it. She grabs the bowl and runs toward the buses idling in front of the high school as water sloshes down her dress onto her sandals.
A group of high school boys, tall and shirtless, are gathered next to Tommy’s bus.
“Where you goin’ so fas’ an’ busy?” one of them says. Silver rivulets of sweat seep from his hairline down past his dark eyes. Stepping closer, he puts a finger in the fish bowl and swishes it around. The others close in, sleepy-eyed.
“Who dis all wet ’n pretty?” someone says. Anne wishes she hadn’t worn the backless sundress. She’s tired, beyond tired. The bus driver is nowhere to be seen.
“She lookin’ fo’ help,” one of them says.
“That’s right,” she says, louder than she meant to. She puts out her hand to push the boy away, but his chest is warm and smooth, she may even feel the thrumming of his heart beneath the skin. “You,” she says. “How about you help me?” And she laughs. Not her usual laugh; this is a tinkling laugh, like a bell.
“What?” he says, but Anne has hit her stride. Gently, she pushes him aside and climbs onto Tommy’s bus with the fish.
It’s past four o’clock when she turns in her attendance forms and stows the last of her things in the car. A storm is coming, the sky has darkened to charcoal, the school cinder-block has gone gray. The windows are black, except for one—a portrait of chiaroscuro figures, woman and child, against a yellow background. The woman, tall, straight-backed, swings a chair from floor to desktop as the child, shorter than the broom she carries, sweeps the floor beneath. Gliding from chair to chair, they move in tandem, swinging, sweeping, their faces turned toward each other.
Live oaks make a tunnel of the road leading away from the school. Spanish moss, dripping from the branches, sways in the wind. It’s the wind, possibly, that brings their voices to her—the soft, plum-toned words they speak to each other.
“That’s right, Lettie. Get under there good, honey.”
“Can I do the black-a-board next, Mama?”
“Yes, baby, we get it all.”