Photo Bobby Doherty
Her silk scarf billows from about her neck. Recess duty. Mrs. Gallagher leans against the stone wall of the school, watching a group of her students (Sarah, Cody, George, Alyssa and Tom) construct a maze out of twigs in the far west corner of the fifth grade field. Mrs. Gallagher checks her watch and is surprised to see that the minute hand has just overlapped with the mark at the top, and that the hour hand hovers precisely sixty degrees about the face. She takes one long stride from the wall and draws in a breath of autumn air. “Children,” she yells. They are like stunned animals, frozen mid-shout, mid-throw, mid-leap, mid-somersault. The baseball has frozen mid-way between Brad and Mike—no, wait, it has fallen.
Clouds caught in fast winds cast their shadows over the school grounds, throwing a brief darkness over the children who crawl out from under bushes and jump from every level of the jungle gym; they slink across the soccer field pulling leaves from the lowest branches of trees as they come, crouching to fix the strap of a sandal. “Recess is over, children,” Mrs. Gallagher says. The cars zoom past, broken by the diamonds of the chain-link fence, speeding well over 15 m.p.h.
Because of the movement her voice inspires and, thereafter, the order mustered as the children dutifully queue up behind her, Mrs. Gallagher has always considered this her favorite part of the day.
The articulateness of Mrs. Gallagher’s presentations is indubitable. She stands at the podium flanked by pie charts to the right and left, line charts projected on the screen overhead. Words like “normalized curve” and “tergiversation” and “r-value” and “perquisite” stud her explanations and analyses. The red dot from her laser pointer jumps from graph to graph. Everyone in the auditorium knows Mrs. Gallagher; within the district at least, you would have to call Mrs. Gallagher something of a celebrity.
At the conclusion of the presentation, a board member asks Mrs. Gallagher to clarify her theory accounting for the gap between basic math improvement rates among third and fourth grade students, and Mrs. Gallagher says only, “Graph number twenty-two,” and angrily folds the posters and packs the overheads away.
“Mrs. Gallagher has this peculiar quality of making you think that you know her very well when in fact you know almost nothing about her. We often go to brunch together on Sundays. We’ll sit for two hours, even longer some days, at one of those small round tables by the window… I mean, understand that I call Mrs. Gallagher one of my best friends. But the thing is, later in the day I’ll think back and realize that over the whole two hours or however long the brunch was… even though she asks questions and speaks about general things like news stories and Hollywood gossip, looking back I’ll realize that she said nothing about herself at all.”
Mrs. Gallagher is also a wife and a mother. Her elderly husband retired long ago and, due to a degenerative muscle disorder, has been confined since the age of sixty-seven to his motorized wheelchair. (“We don’t say that someone’s weird,” Mrs. Gallagher will call from across a room. “We say that he or she is different from ourselves.”) She has an adult son who lives on the second floor of the garage. She loves white chocolate. On Christmas Eve, she pops in her favorite Christmas movie, collapses onto her leather couch, and eats as many chocolate squares as her stomach will allow. She enjoys crinkling the tinfoil wrappers into compact silver balls and sending them over the coffee table. Her husband, from his wheelchair, coaches her overhand throw.
Mrs. Gallagher understands that it’s best to define oneself in clear terms for the children, to give them something to grapple with, so that they may more personally and more confidently interact with their teacher. She tries to present herself as transparently as possible within the bounds of fifth grade mores. “I love white chocolate,” she tells her students. “I have an elderly husband who is confined to a motorized wheelchair.” She readjusts the collar of her blazer. “I also have one adult son.” The children stare. “My twin sister, Amelia,” she says, “is estranged from the family.” Mrs. Gallagher points to a brown birthmark the size of a #2 pencil tip to the left side of her nose. “If it were not for this birthmark,” she says, “Amelia and I would be completely indistinguishable.”
Mrs. Gallagher drinks three cups of black coffee each morning. The first cup at home, the second in her car, and the third from a thermos during first period language arts.
After walking the children to gym class, Mrs. Gallagher, as per usual, slips into the teachers’ lounge and knocks lightly on the door of the unisex bathroom. The teachers’ lounge is always empty after first period but, as a precautionary measure, Mrs. Gallagher lets both the hot and cold water run as she performs that perfunctory work of unleashing the stuff of her bowels. Mrs. Gallagher hears the door to the teachers’ lounge open, heavy footsteps across the carpeting and then (to her horror), the jimmying of the bathroom doorknob. “Just a minute!” calls Mrs. Gallagher from the toilet. “Sure,” calls the voice from the other side of the door. But Mrs. Gallagher cannot possibly exit the unisex bathroom, the ventilation system being so poor, the toilet seat so adept at capturing and retaining the heat of her bottom. After several terrifying minutes, the door to the teachers’ lounge opens and shuts and Mrs. Gallagher, much relieved, flushes the toilet, arranges her undergarments and skirt, and rubs a bar of lavender scented soap between her hands. At a volume well beneath the sound of running water: Fhwwew, fhwwew, she breathes.
“Our classrooms have been back-to-back for… I’d say the last three years now. I can always hear Mrs. Gallagher tapping her chalk on the blackboard. This time the noise was much more than usual, as if the children were jumping around and slamming into the walls. So, unable to teach, I went next door (of course she didn’t hear me knock) and guess what they’re doing?... jumping around and slamming into the walls and half the kids are up on chairs waving their jackets like flags towards the windows which were all wide open despite the cold. Mrs. Gallagher, she was by the cubbies flailing around some kind of butterfly net. And when I told her—the day’s schedule was posted right there on the easel—that she should be teaching science now, she said, ‘Real world problem-solving,’ and went back to the bee. Apparently, there was a bee in the classroom.”
It’s not always smooth sailing in the school and Mrs. Gallagher’s class is no exception. A rumor circulates all about Nancy Orsulak and her vibrating pen. Erica told George and George told R.J. and R.J. told the world, discerns Mrs. Gallagher. No one will sit beside Nancy during Tuesday’s hour of private reading in the library. (Nancy, well-developed for her age, 5’2”, her luscious, strawberry locks pinned into buns over her ears.) The children peek through the gaps between books, giggling, while Nancy sniffs into the elastic sleeve of her turquoise sweatshirt. Justin and Josh riff on an old rhyme, something about “marriage” and an “empty baby carriage,” but their words are almost indecipherable through the torrents of their laughter.
Mrs. Gallagher, always ready to fight cruelty with knowledge, calls an emergency lesson on the nature and permutations of human sexuality. “Children,” she says, “your bodies approach the state of adult maturity.” (R.J. and George hide behind the open tops of their desks.) “Children,” she says, “your behavior in class must rise to the occasion.” Sydney and Katie raise their clasped hands. “Yes, Sydney and Katie?” says Mrs. Gallagher. Sydney and Katie stand at their desks. “Why can’t we all simply love one another?” they say, and Mrs. Gallagher thanks them for their contribution though feels that Sydney and Katie missed the various implications brought about by a vibrating pen which Nancy, Erica, George, Justin, Josh and R.J. understood. “Is it so wrong?” calls Nancy from beneath the shadow of her turquoise hood.
Only four other times in her twenty-nine years of teaching has Mrs. Gallagher ever during first period spilled coffee down her front. She calmly asks the students to talk amongst themselves while she dabs her chest with tissues.
“The future of our world hinges entirely upon the edification of the next generation. I break the day down into forty-five minute intervals, each focused on the subject of language arts, math, science, or history, in between the necessary allotted times for lunch, gym, music and recess. This is not an unusual system. Intermittently, though, I try to unpredictably cut loose from the rigors of the timetable, so as to teach the children that their daily lives will not forever clump so neatly into units of imposed structure. Also, free them from the murkiness of educational packaging by which all information is disseminated within the school. When the children ask if they can meet Amelia, I tell them that Amelia will come one day and stand right here where I’m standing and teach them language arts or history or math just as I do, but that they won’t notice unless they pay very close attention. I try to keep them on their toes. Once, I’m remembering, I told my students that we’d take a class trip to Disney World if within the next four hours they could give me the square root of three in decimal form. You should’ve seen them all with their legs crossed, biting their lips, running up to sharpen their pencils. Have decimals ever generated so much enthusiasm? Of course they were pretty riled up when they realized… and then with the parents calling… I bet they got a good understanding of interminable numbers though.”
Mrs. Gallagher insists that you address her as “Mrs. Gallagher.”
The state government has designated this Friday in April for the administration of standardized exams. Sarah, who turns eleven today, hides behind the easel posting the day’s schedule; Hank (eleven tomorrow) throws dice against the yellow wall. They are inconsolable; the test requires all seven periods for successful completion, thus quashing the possibility of a birthday celebration. Mrs. Gallagher passes out the booklets and the answer sheets and the children work silently; it is a calm broken only by a violent sneeze or the mad rubbing of an eraser.
Halfway through the reading comprehension portion of the exam Mrs. Gallagher begins to hum. A few children glance up. Her humming gets louder and Sydney and Mike and Cody and Amy and R.J. join in. Pencils drop. And then more children join in until everyone is singing “Happy Birthday to You.” Mrs. Gallagher rises from her desk and, from the highest shelf in the utility closet, she produces a chocolate-and-vanilla-swirl birthday cake, its candles already and inexplicably aflame. The blue wax beads and rolls onto the white frosting and the candles, or at least their tin music-box bases, join in the birthday song for Sarah and Hank who clap and shout with joy and relief. (Now I’ll never earn my scholarship, thinks Tom, galumphing from his desk.) Mrs. Gallagher and the children lean in and, all together, blow out the little flames in one marvelous gust from the simultaneous contraction of seventeen lungs. They are in this action—dare we say it—like a team, a club, a family, the most perfect of all community organizations for each knows so well the habits of the other and strives to help one another and Mrs. Gallagher (their fearless leader!) preparing them for life to come and also savoring the goodness, the sweetness of the mundane.
Yet before I get too carried away, we should step back and acknowledge that these moments of togetherness, of unity between the children and Mrs. Gallagher, are offset by moments of impassable distance; like the next week, how Mrs. Gallagher momentarily forgets the presence of R.J. and Sydney and Erica, et cetera, right there in front of her, copying down the day’s homework assignments. She gazes out the window and sees… What? wonder the children... The correct spellings of a thousand words taking form in the budding ends of the sycamores? The branches themselves sprawled like binary trees and casting their intricate shadows over the white tops of the desks? Certainly she can’t be blind to their expectant lips, their waiting eyes that blink and blink, the students who do not know if Mrs. Gallagher pauses because she expects their active participation or if she pauses to consider some complex problem unknowable to them because they are children and because they know nothing of Mrs. Gallagher’s life beyond fleeting anecdotes about her elderly husband, adult son, twin sister, and love of white chocolate which are interesting, yes, but not fully elucidating, not quite enough to illuminate the woman, Mrs. Gallagher, who seems always aloft on a pedestal of marble and gold with her legs modestly crossed at the ankles, a fist placed under her chin and the turquoise watch slipped down her forearm, Mrs. Gallagher forever towering in teacherly pose.
“No chat rooms. No games. No adult websites.”
“It’s quite alright, children, don’t be afraid. Look, two small pricks. Nothing at all.”
“Consider the wing of an airplane—the top is sloped and the underside flat. As you may see by this formula, air pressure relates inversely to speed, so that high speed occasions low pressure, and low speed occasions high pressure. When a plane accelerates, the velocity of the airflow above the wing’s surface is greater than the velocity below. This disparity in velocity is accompanied by higher pressure beneath the wing than above,”—(the children take notes furiously)—“thus producing lift. Amelia is a pilot on a jetliner which routinely shuttles passengers from New York City to Moscow and back. She describes the feeling of lift as the closest we’ll ever come to experiencing the buoyancy of the soul.”
Mrs. Gallagher is missing. The children return from lunch to a brightly lit classroom, the door ajar, but the desk empty where Mrs. Gallagher usually sits, grading quizzes in felt-tip red pen, rearranging the clips in her hair, and awaiting her students’ return. “Where’s Mrs. Gallagher?” The good children (Sydney, Hank, Justin, Tom, Alyssa, Josh, Katie, Cody, and Sarah) wait in their assigned seats; the bad ones (R.J., Erica, Nancy, Amy, George, Brad, and Mike) pull at the topmost drawer of Mrs. Gallagher’s desk, which is securely locked and accessible only with the key that Mrs. Gallagher keeps on her person. The bad children grunt with the effort of pulling the drawer but the lock will not give.
“Damn it,” they say, and begin to kick at Mrs. Gallagher’s desk, the books rocking, the pens and pencils jiggling indignantly in the coffee cup.
Yet their attention is diverted, for suddenly Sarah, nearest to the window, unleashes a shriek that impels the other children to cover their ears. “There she is!” says Sarah, pointing to the dancing figure on the lawn. Children rush to the window. On the empty soccer field, along the west side of the school, they spot Mrs. Gallagher, barefoot and skipping through the grass, tossing into the bright afternoon sky a giant lime-green yoga ball, jumping after the rolling globe and achieving nearly full splits in the air, her gray-blond hair poofing about her head, the brown A-line skirt bunching at her thighs.
“She’s gone loony,” says George.
“My dad told me she’s always been like that,” says Brad. “Let’s go!”
And all the children run from the classroom, through the hallway of rooms brimming with unlucky students who did not win the lotto entrance into Mrs. Gallagher’s class this year; teachers peer out the doorways to watch Mrs. Gallagher’s children speed down the two flights of stairs, whooping and jumping; they burst through the red doors and out onto the soccer field, several holding hands and all skipping for Mrs. Gallagher who drops the giant lime-green yoga ball and opens her arms wide as if she will gather them all into one fantastic scoop when they reach her.
R.J.: For her hair smells of lemons
Sydney: For she offers half her sandwich to the child who forgot her lunch
Erica: For she can leap and dislodge a pencil from the ceiling
Hank: For each part in the December play has an equal number of lines
Justin: For she tells the height-deficient child that one day he will grow
Nancy: For among all women, none can tuck her blouse into her skirt like she can, so that the cream-colored cotton puffs so elegantly about her motherly chest
Amy: For though I sometimes speak out of turn, she always lets me have my say
Tom: For she can plant a dot so forcibly upon the blackboard and announce, this is a point, or draw a diameter through the center of a perfectly constructed circle so that A = πr2 and C = 2πr and she says that I will become a physicist if I want
George: For she remembers the names of all our siblings
Brad: For if we are behaving badly, she will march into the boys’ bathroom, but she will give us warning first
Alyssa: For her eloquence knows no equal
Josh: For when the music teacher says we don’t improve, Mrs. Gallagher says he lacks an ear for talent though most of us—we each play a recorder—aren’t any good
Katie: For if we provide a serious reason, we may sit out the Pledge of Allegiance
Cody: For any student who laughs at my hearing aid will spend recess inside
Mike: For I saw her cry the day her father died
Sarah: For she never knows how many days till summer
Nearly five hundred children have matriculated into Mrs. Gallagher’s fifth grade, and she anticipates five hundred more.
Former students return to visit her, to report on their vicissitudes of fortune, but rarely can these former students find Mrs. Gallagher, the location of her classroom kept in constant flux by bureaucratic elementary school administrators. Many return in small groups to watch the fifth grade graduation ceremony, for each year at the conclusion of the ceremony, the principal presents Mrs. Gallagher with the much-coveted “Excellent Teaching Award.” Every time, Mrs. Gallagher flushes pink all through her cheeks and down her arms and, quite regularly, really, she trips on one of the four stairs leading up to the stage. Once at the podium, she thanks her students that year. “R.J. and Sydney and Erica and Hank and Justin and Nancy and Amy and Tom and George and Brad and Alyssa and Josh and Katie and Cody and Mike and Sarah,” says Mrs. Gallagher.
Gyrating in the warm late July breeze, Mrs. Gallagher reclines on an inflatable lounge chair in the deep end of the backyard pool. She sips from a pineapple smoothie with a blue umbrella perched atop the ice cubes. Her mailbox, unnamed. Her address, unknown. Within the district, presumably, but impossible to pinpoint so exactly amid the parked cars, hedges and groaning swing sets of anonymous suburban sprawl. The children of Mrs. Gallagher’s fifth grade class are now distanced and displaced by summertime and spread across the surface of the ever-curving earth. They, the children, sometimes imagine picking up the phone and calling Mrs. Gallagher, but they cannot think of what to say—no, impossible, impossible—what would they say?
The only children who do occasionally call—“Just to say hi”—are the children from Mrs. Gallagher’s very first class twenty-nine years ago, long before even the birth of R.J. and Sydney and Erica, et cetera. Mrs. Gallagher had seventeen fifth graders, eight boys and nine girls and of course she remembers that their classroom was G170, basement level, because in early March of that year the heater exploded and set the walls ablaze. The opaque, black smoke, Mrs. Gallagher remembers, poured in beneath the two inch gap at the base of the classroom door and the cracks along the sides. Knowing the danger of smoke inhalation—the rapidity of suffocation death—Mrs. Gallagher drew her desk up to the nearest of the narrow windows lining the ceiling, opened the window, and began lifting the children (huddling around her, rushing around her legs, climbing up next to her onto the desk) from under their arms and sliding them up and onto the lawn. Once she had lifted the last of the seventeen children through the open window, Mrs. Gallagher hoisted herself up and out of the basement, abandoning her pink pumps which remained in the smoke filled classroom quite properly upright on the desk. She sprinted across the soccer field, herding the children forward toward the approaching fire trucks, holding one of them on her hip—Jimmy, yes, sweet-natured Jimmy—who had gashed his ankle on the metal handle while kicking his way to the grass.
The children were all safe, thanks entirely to Mrs. Gallagher, for room G170 and much of the school basement fell in on itself that morning, enveloped in flame. The parents said, “We love you, Mrs. Gallagher,” and everyone has always agreed that Mrs. Gallagher handled the situation very well, that she acted quite courageously. As for Mrs. Gallagher herself though, she continues to wonder, for instance, if the door to the classroom had not been so securely….had she not had the strength…if the height of the desk…if one of the children had…and the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms so far down the hall…did she even count them as she?...confabulations that at this very moment erupt into existence and run themselves out across the vivid landscape of the mind’s eye.
Mrs. Gallagher dips her fingers into the pool water, the glistening crests and troughs, and untwisting the straps of her green-and-white polka dot bikini, turns over in the sun. •
Ariel Djanikian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. Her first novel, The Office of Mercy, will be published by Viking in February 2013. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.