How can this day be so beautiful? Anna watched the indifferent sunlight trickle through the smeared windowpanes. Despite the decades of dirt, this room got such good afternoon light, though she only noticed it on movie days when she had to draw the blinds tighter halfway through the day. And, of course, today. She was noticing everything today.
Tuesdays were always her worst days: back-to-back classes and meetings and no time for her bodily needs, let alone spiritual ones. But this Tuesday was especially strained.
Luis shifted loudly and Anna glared at him, as if a look could fix him motionless to his seat. As if that child had ever been motionless in his life. He was one of those hummingbird students, flashy and flighty, but somehow Anna always found herself smiling at his exhausting charm. At least, she usually did. Today she felt like the muscles in her cheeks would never unclench.
She had offered stickers to the children that morning, flimsy, shiny shields of her love. Some of the students were confused. Some gave a wobbly smile. Others were not shy to share their teenaged scorn: what’s the point? Anna told them that it might make them feel better but inside she knew they were right to scoff. The stickers were there to make Anna feel better. To make her feel like she could do anything at all for these children today.
Had she ever noticed before how loud her heartbeat was? She felt her blood charging through her arteries, feeding every gesture: a half-smile, a tap on Ari’s slumped shoulder, the pattern of delicate steps through the maze of bookbags and chair legs. How strange, to spend so much energy to cycle the same matter through the same places. She took a deep breath: in, then out. Well, not exactly the same matter. The circulatory system was next week, and she’d need to find a way to show how the transport process was a dynamic exchange, all part of maintaining homeostasis: keeping things in balance.
Anna was having trouble doing that herself. She still felt bad for snapping at Paola during second period that morning. She knew that yelling was ineffective, that it ripped through relationships and exploded her own veneer of control — but really, of all the days not to sign out for the bathroom, to disappear for fifteen minutes — what if something had happened?
Anna shook herself back into the present. She fingered her keys in her pocket. She kept glancing at the door, which she’d finally papered over in December, because passing teenagers kept making faces at their friends through the glass. Now she was glad of it. Except she wished she had the X-ray vision she sometimes pretended she did. What was on the other side?
She counted heads again; were all thirty-three there? Shit, only thirty — oh, wait, Angel was in DR with his family this week, and both Janelle and Marcus had stayed home today because their parents had been worried. Anna didn’t blame them, despite reassurances from the principal and the police that the threat was “non-credible”, whatever that meant. She had wanted to stay home today herself.
But here she was, talking about organ systems, to a classroom that was quieter than she could ever enforce on a normal day. And how she missed the chaos of a normal day: the pencil-tappers, with rhythms distinct as birdsong; the preening designed to catch the eye of some cute female across the room; the rush of protective warmth she felt when students were persistent or kind or funny; the primal frustration at adolescents challenging her authority; the stillness of a prep period, her first chance to breathe alone in hours. Today’s quiet was nothing like that.
Anna stood in the eye of this unnatural calm, pointing at diagrams and circulating the room to monitor student work, as if the entire time she wasn’t envisioning the chaos that a bullet would wreak on the esophagus, the stomach, the small intestine, the large intestine. She wondered what it would feel like. She wondered if she’d be able to do it, if the time came: to jump in front of a student. To tackle a stranger, or, God forbid, someone she’d taught and loved and now… well.
The time never came.
Nothing happened, Anna told her boyfriend that night at home. He offered to give her a backrub but she brushed him off, wrapping her arms around her legs and squeezing tightly as she stared at the flashing glare of the television. I’m fine. Nothing happened.
But she couldn’t stop crying, and her heartbeat was so much louder than whatever words he tried to whisper in her ear.
I’m going to bed, she said. Tomorrow they’d be starting on the nervous system. As much as she wanted to take one of her three sick days, to curl up at home with tea and crackers and streaming television, nothing had happened today, after all. She’d be at school at 7:45 tomorrow as usual, smile on her face, as if today had never happened. A fresh start. Good days following bad days: that’s homeostasis, she told herself. All things balance out in the end. She tried very hard to believe it.
Laura Wang is a writer and teacher in New York City, where she teaches human beings about molecules.
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