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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.