I had a liberal arts degree, and it was spring, and my friend Dolores told me that elementary schools needed men. ‘We are woefully deficient in elementary schools,’ she said.
‘Of men?’ I was eating peanuts, I think. We were at McDougal’s Tavern. The smell of old carpet. Soft lighting. Bald shame.
‘Of positive male role models.’ Dolores had the most serious eyes. Everything she said was like an explanation. ‘And not just locally,’ she continued. ‘Even in the good places to be from. The entire American educational system.’ She gestured at America and gulped her Pabst. ‘It’s shameful.’
The week before, Dolores had gotten drunk on my balcony and screamed down at some dude-bros with sideways ball caps and sagging cargo shorts that all men should ‘Go home and jerk off to death!’ They shot her some gestures and staggered across my parking lot to wherever, and Dolores hollered out, ‘Jerk off to death!’ one last time as they faded into the distance. She was so amazing then.
‘You think you could get me a gig for next year?’
‘Positive,’ she told me. She touched my hair. ‘We just gotta get you cleaned up some.’
Here’s something bizarre: in the spring of 2008 I tucked in my shirt, cut my hair and got a job.
I don’t want to bore you with all the details of how I became a prekindergarten teacher, but what you have to know is: it wasn’t my first gig at Brogan Elementary. My first year, I did fifth grade. My second, third. I sort of failed my way down to it.
For all my faults – I’m disorganized, I’m spacey, my hands are too small for my body – I’ve got a few things really going for me:
1. I show up. Every day. And on time.
2. I don’t bitch, ever.
But I’m probably not a good teacher. I couldn’t explain negative numbers to the fifth-graders and I couldn’t explain nouns and verbs to the third-graders, but I can set out snacks and open finger paints better than nearly anybody alive. I can take my students to gather fallen leaves in autumn and help them do crayon rubbings. I can pour flour on the floor in December and have the kids pretend it’s snow. ‘I’m making an angel,’ they say looking up at me, doing horizontal jumping jacks on the tile, the air in the room chalky with the dust of it all.
So, yeah, the job’s a joy. A bunch of creatures with twinkling eyes doing cute things because I tell them to, but there’s a trade-off.
1. They are dirty as hell. But let’s come back to that.
2. You should see how the parents look at me on the first day of school.
Now, what Dolores said is true. Aside from the librarian1 and a PE aide2, I am the only man at Brogan Elementary. This is not an anomaly. Last I checked, the percentage of male elementary school teachers in south Texas, where I live, is something like 8 per cent, and most of that 8 per cent is comprised of coaches and Teach For America hipsters who pass through casually with their New Hampshire-soft dispositions saying shit like ‘legit’ and ‘sustainable’ until they decide their calling is elsewhere and they paddle off toward more impoverished communities in a homemade canoe. Save the world, motherfuckers.
But because there are so few men, parents are confused by me.
It doesn’t matter if they’re mothers or fathers, if they have daughters or sons: the first day is an awkward passing of the baton. The parents come in with their precious little darlings and then they have to leave them with an unfamiliar grown man.
Some things just seem wrong to us.
When I told Dolores about it, she said, ‘What do you expect?’
We were at McDougal’s again – they give you a discount with your instructor ID – and the crowd was thin and the music set to lull. There was an old man at the end of the bar, and every so often he cleared his throat.
‘Men are perverts,’ said Dolores. ‘Look how much porn is on the internet. It’s no wonder y’all are so shitty on dates.’
‘Maybe, but there’s women in those videos.’
I sipped my beer, set it down. I was on my fifth or sixth and my coaster had gone gummy, like wet papier mâché. ‘In the videos there’s women.’
‘Slaves,’ Dolores told me. ‘Caught in a system that has trained them to believe the only way they can contribute is by trading their bodies for profit, or, worse, legitimate sex slaves, trapped in brothel towns. Can you imagine? One day you’re just a girl who’s good at braiding hair and the next you’re shanghaied to some gray sex village in Eastern Europe.’
The old man cleared his throat at this, said, ‘I won’t watch the ones that aren’t in English.’ He rubbed his mouth. ‘They don’t talk much, but when they do, I like to understand ’em.’
Dolores was shocked. ‘Am I in the fucking twilight zone?’ she asked.
The older man looked over his shoulders, surveying the empty barroom.
‘I don’t know,’ I said to Dolores. ‘I get it, guys are perverts, but women are perverts too. We watch porn. But I’ve seen tons of videos of women being perverted in that porn. I think we’re all just gross.’
‘Because they have to,’ said Dolores.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘They seem to be enjoying themselves.’
‘Yep, yep, they do,’ said the old-timer.
Dolores ground her teeth. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘They’re ACTING.’
I wiped some sweat off my beer. ‘Shit, then they deserve awards.’
The older man nodded.
‘And,’ I continued, ‘if they’re just acting, they need to like branch out.’ Cause they’re usually pretty good at acting like they enjoy the sex part, but they’re dog shit when it comes to pretending they’re someone’s mother-in-law. They should study other methods,’
‘Stanislavsky,’ said the old man.
‘I’m leaving,’ said Dolores. She reached for her purse. ‘If you two want to sit in here and gab exploitation, you’ll have to do it without me.’
‘Nah,’ I said. ‘We’ll stop.’
She had most of a vodka tonic left. She looked at it, at us. ‘I’m only staying to finish my drink.’
‘You know,’ I said, ‘my job might not be much different than being in porn.’
Dolores and the old-timer looked at me in unison.
‘I have to pretend to be having a good time. Telling them their drawings are good and stuff. I get bodily fluid all over me. Snot. Pee. Poo. Spit. It’s tons of them and just one of me.’
‘Gang bang,’ said the old man.
‘Y’all are disgusting,’ said Dolores.
‘What’s the worst thing they do?’ the old man said. ‘Like when they’re misbehaving?’
I thought about it. ‘Oh, y’know. Bite. Pull hair.’ I gazed off. ‘But really, that stuff doesn’t bother me. Worst thing is when the little boys pee on stuff.’
‘Pee on stuff?’
‘And not just in the bathroom either. They’ll go through phases. It’s rare, but it happens. They think it’s funny. They’ll pee on the toys. In the Kleenex box.’
‘It’s because little boys are gross,’ said Dolores. ‘And they never grow out of it.’ She smiled falsely.
The old-timer sipped his drink. Looked up at the grime-spotted glasses which were holstered upside down in a rack overhead. ‘What about the girls?’ he asked.
‘I mean they’ll wet their pants on occasion,’ I said, ‘but nothing intentional.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘what’s their equivalent? You said we’re all gross. What’s the grossest thing they’ll do?’
‘Oh,’ I said, and it took me a moment. ‘At nap they’ll dry-hump the stuffed animals.’
Dolores picked up her glass and drained it. She set it on the bar, looked at me. ‘I just can’t.’ She put a five-dollar bill near her coaster. ‘Cover whatever that doesn’t. I’m off to find healthier company.’ The old-timer and I watched her go.
I wasn’t kidding about the porn-star bit. Well, I was sort of kidding. My job isn’t really like being a porn star, or at least I don’t think of it like that. But my day consists of wrangling a horde of crazed kiddos through a routine that breaks down like this:
7.45–8.30: They start to arrive. For the first few weeks, this entails some version of me demonstrating to the parents that, indeed, I am not a pedophile, which is usually accomplished best by introducing them to my assistant Graciela who, in some subliminal manner, must intimate this to them. Then, we take their backpacks, put away their lunches and wash hands. About the fifth week of school, I no longer have to prove myself.
8.30 –9.30: By this time, except when the parents are really bad alcoholics, the tykes have arrived and we breakfast on foods wrapped in plastic or fruit that looks orphaned and begin our rudimentary writing lessons. Generally, this involves the alphabet. I’ve been teaching prekindergarten for years now. I know the alphabet like a motherfucker. I know songs – whole songs for every letter. I know the thing in English and Spanish and German and French. I know at least two ways to turn common household materials into animals that correspond to each letter, except for X3.
I can even sing it backwards, and sometimes I think about doing dumb shit in front of law officers while driving, just so I might have to use the skill to get out of a DUI.
Z, Y, X,
U, T, S,
R, Q, P,
O, N, M,
L, K, J, I,
H, G, F,
E, D, C,
9.30 –10.30: Story time doesn’t really last an hour, but writing lessons doesn’t really last an hour either. We merely have an hour allotted. Do you know how long it takes to get sixteen four- and five-year-olds to sit criss-cross applesauce on the magic carpet? Criss-cross what, you might ask? That’s right, Indian style is no more. Also, they’re allowed to use their left hands now. And, it takes about eight minutes. Just to get them to sit. Then five to get them to pipe down, because they have the same questions every day.
‘Is this carpet really magic?’
‘Metaphorically,’ I’ll say.
‘What’s today’s story about?’
‘A little boy who gets very sick and a stuffed bunny rabbit.’
‘I love stuffed bunny rabbits,’ one of the girls says.
‘Hopefully not too much.’
‘Is the story happy or sad?’
‘Only one way to find out.’
And I start reading.
10.30 –11.30: Gym! Someone else handles this part. I get to go to the teachers’ lounge. My first year of pre-K, Dolores had conference with me. We’d sit and gab about whatever, other teachers coming and going, making coffee or snagging their tuna sandwiches from the faculty refrigerator.
‘Who teaches boys about women?’ Dolores asked me once.
‘Um . . .’
‘Other men,’ she said. ‘Usually older ones who’ve never had healthy relationships.’
‘If you knew the answer . . .’
‘Don’t you find that troublesome?’
‘I might have learned about women from the internet.’
‘My students,’ Dolores told me, ‘the boy ones. If they like a girl, they treat her like shit.’
‘That’s how they treat the boys they like too. Think about how much they wrestle.’ I’d seen her fourth-grader boys leaping upon each other in the hall. Grasping each other in headlocks and half nelsons.
‘I went on a date last week with a guy who tried to order for me. He tried to order for me. Food.’
Some other teacher was pouring coffee. She might have been eighty years old. ‘Did he open your car door for you?’ she asked. ‘Regular doors don’t bother me, but when they open car doors, I just get nauseous.’
‘I can’t remember,’ said Dolores.
‘Why do you even go on dates?’ I asked. ‘You never have a good time.’
‘Because I want children.’
‘Oh, honey,’ said the eighty-year-old. ‘You won’t once you have them.’
‘I want children so I can help to change the world,’ Dolores said. ‘I want sons. I want to mold them. You can’t mold the students. I used to think you could. I think it’s because they spend too much time with their parents. They come back from the weekend completely regressed.’
11.30 –12.30: Lunch is odd because many of the students have dietary restrictions, and even though we give all the parents a list of things the kids aren’t allowed to bring for lunch, they take no notice. Tea Party parents are the worst. You tell them at the beginning of the year about nut allergies and they say, ‘Excuse me?’
‘Yeah,’ you tell them. ‘See, one of the students,’ you aren’t allowed to say which one, but by the third week, somehow, everybody knows, ‘is deathly allergic to nuts and we can’t have them in the room, or, y’know, they might die.’
Then they mumble stuff about tax dollars, and occasionally send peanut butter sandwiches.
12.30 –1.30: Music or Art! Again, this one’s not on me. On good days, I’ll sit in my classroom and stare at the linoleum. On bad days, I call parents and tell them what their child has done.
1.30 –2.30: Math is basically code for numbers and shapes. We learn to count. We learn how some things are bigger than other things. We learn about opposites.
‘The opposite of poo-poo is pee-pee,’ one of the little boys will holler, and the rest of the class will erupt into forced laughter like an infomercial audience.
‘Not exactly,’ I’ll say. ‘Opposites are like hot and cold. Big and small. Inside and outside.’
‘Teacher,’ they’ll say. ‘Then what’s the opposite of poo-poo?’
Sometimes, the kids will ask a question that makes your whole sense of reality unravel. Is there really an opposite of everything? Because there is no opposite of poo-poo.
2.30 –3.30: The kids are supposed to leave at 3.30 on the nose, and the last hour of my day is devoted to snack and relaxing, maybe some kind of craft. This is the time we use for fake snow. This is the time we make Mother’s Day cards and plant trees for Arbor Day.
This is the best part of my day, for a few reasons.
1. It’s the end.
2. The kids are happy that their parents show up.
3. They’re so sweet and warm when they’re leaving. Walking down the hall. Singing the alphabet backwards. Waving goodbye at me. Walking their waddles.
In my third year of teaching pre-K, Dolores started dating a geologist.
‘Like, really? A geologist?’ I said. ‘That’s an actual thing? A real profession?’
‘Of course it is. Why else would people study it?’ There was so much fuck-you in the tone of her voice.
‘You can study poetry,’ I said. ‘Poetry’s not a job.’
She closed her eyes. ‘You can be a professional poet.’
She looked away. Out a window. She seemed focused on her breathing. She whispered, ‘He’s a geologist.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’m happy for you.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m happy for me too.’
I looked out the window as well, but I couldn’t see anything remarkable.
‘Did you tell Smashley?’
Smashley was a friend of ours who wouldn’t talk to me anymore because before I got my teaching job, I’d day-drink a lot, and I was always texting, asking her to send me pictures of her feet. And then she did and felt weird about it, or maybe I was weird toward her afterward.
‘Yes, I told Ashley,’ said Dolores.
‘What’d she say?’
‘What you’d expect her to say.’
Once, when I was walking with Smashley on a grimy beach on North Padre Island, a guy in Oakley sunglasses came up, said, ‘Where you going, sweetheart?’ She smiled at him and grabbed her tummy. ‘To take a mean shit.’
I thought about geologists. Tried to conceive of what they did. I thought about Smashley. How her brain functioned. ‘She asked if he drilled you good,’ I said.
Dolores had so much hate in her face then. ‘I’m surrounded by children.’
‘Am I right?’
‘At work, children. My friends, children.’
‘Did she say that?’
Dolores clenched her fists. ‘Of course she said that, you fucking creep.’
There was a kind of new rage in her words. ‘Wait, did she tell you about the feet thing?’
And Dolores said, ‘I’ve always known about the feet thing.’
At the end of that semester, we had a party for Dolores in the library. Vanilla ice cream. Chocolate cake. Dolores wasn’t going to be a teacher anymore.
‘I’m not quitting forever,’ she said. ‘I’m taking the summer to plan the wedding and then next year I’m going to apply for grad school. I haven’t completely decided what I’ll study, but I’m supremely intrigued by the matrix of oppression.’
None of us knew what the hell she was talking about. I don’t think I’d ever seen her more happy.
Sometimes at work I’ll have an existential crisis. Am I teaching the students to think, or am I only just giving them memories?
I love coloring with them because it helps me make sense of it all. I give them a box of crayons. I give them a sheet of white paper and on that white paper is some line drawing to be hued. Their job is to select colors and fill blank space. My job is to give them blank space to fill. You know, if they did a good enough job in the coloring, even if the lines disappeared entirely, through magic or erasure, the form would hold. You’d still recognize the composition. My favorite kids are the ones who suck at coloring. They take the crayons and go all over the place. With them, if you removed the lines, the page would be a disaster of pigments. I like to think the ones who are worst at coloring will remember me the longest.
I barely know Dolores anymore. I got drunk at her wedding and the bridesmaids wore open-toed sandals, but that’s not why.
When her son, Connor, was two years old I went to her house to pick her up and take her for drinks. Her husband was going to ‘babysit’. That’s what she told me. But how do you babysit your own kid?
Before we left, her husband, Ronny, said, ‘You know, I don’t just let any man take my lady out on a date.’ I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about that.
Dolores and I went to McDougal’s for old times’ sake, and I asked her, ‘Y’all gonna have Connor come to Brogan in a few years?’ They lived in district, and Dolores was still writing her thesis and really I was just making small talk, waiting for my drink to come.
‘Ha,’ Dolores said. ‘Ha,’ she said again.
The bartender served us and we sat there and drank some and Dolores asked, ‘How long do you think you’ll stay doing that?’
‘Ronny thinks it’s funny you teach pre-K. He calls you pre-K. Like, when you text. He says, “Is that pre-K?” ’ She sipped her beer. ‘Do you ever worry about what other men think of your job? I feel like men judge other men by their jobs. How’d you even get into it?’
‘Teaching?’ I said, and it occurred to me I’d been saying my job as a question.
I studied her face. She really couldn’t remember. I looked away. Up at the dirty glasses, pretending to ponder. ‘I think I just wanted summers off.’
I lied. It was easier that way.
This past December I was at the grocery store buying Gold Medal Flour and some eight-year-old I’d had as a student years back came up and said, ‘Is that for snow?’
He pointed at the flour. I nodded and asked if he’d seen real snow yet.
‘When would I ever get to see real snow?’ he said, and then the next day, when it was snowing in my classroom, when the kids were lying in the mounds of it, making angels, tossing piles, I asked them all, ‘Who’s seen real snow?’ And none of them raised their hands.
‘Then this is real snow,’ I said to them, and I threw a handful of it in the air and it burst open, the handful of it, a fit of fine white powder in every direction, a colorless cloud. ‘This is snow,’ I said. ‘And if they say it’s not, they’re lying. And if they’re lying, you don’t need them. It’s snowing.’ I yelped a bit so they knew I meant business. I grabbed another handful from the bag. I threw it as high as I could. The children started hollering with joy. ‘That’s right,’ I hollered with them. ‘This is snow.’
1Who I am pretty certain is extraterrestrial.
2Who gives me about eighty-three high-fives a day.
3I loathe the letter X.
Artwork © Tom Hammick, Bus Station, 1987, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York