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.