She wanted to believe that most third-graders were not this difficult. In fact, her class in particular had a reputation for unruliness. If you get them to sit down in the morning and go home dry-eyed at the end of day, an older teacher had told her, you’re doing fine. The trick is never to forget who’s the teacher.
“Put those away, please,” she told three boys playing a game with playing cards that had pictures of comic book characters. To her relief, they obeyed. This was April of her first year as a teacher, and she was beginning to allow herself to take cautious pleasure in authority.
“Can we go out on the playground?” one of the boys asked. “Please?” said another. “Please?”
She said, “Of course not.”
Around her, the chatter of the class had begun to seem like a swamp bubbling up. She didn’t raise her voice, though. She knew that keeping them under control required picking one’s battles.
“Take your time,” she said brightly, wandering among the desks. “Fractions are hard.”
She was smiling, but whenever she became conscious of what her face was doing, she had to stop immediately because she pictured a reckless, overdetermined smile that looked nailed to her face.
The day was rainy in halfhearted interludes, and she felt the listless weather in her mood. It was not yet noon. Outside the windows, a heavy fog had settled.
“Miss Benet?” said a raw, insistent voice. “Miss Benet? Miss Benet?”
She turned, still smiling. The boy wore an ancient t-shirt that said NIEDERMEYER’S GARAGE in black letters. His skin looked like cheesecloth.
“Gus?” Her tone was gentle. “You need me?”
“I’m bringing my granddad in today.”
He made a grand gesture with an oil-stained hand. “For the presentation.”
The teacher tugged absently at her dress. She tried to imagine Gus’s family. They hadn’t been at parent-teacher night, but she’d seen Gus once at the mall, standing in front of an old, department store Santa Claus. The Santa Claus had had alcoholic cheeks, wet eyes like jelly. She’d seen Gus trying to explain something with animated gestures, but the aging Santa had looked disinterested, staring glumly at the growing line of much-younger children. She tried to redraw the scene in her head but couldn’t see a parent or grandparent in the background.
“Presentations are over,” she said. “Remember? You did yours on… imaginary friends.”
“He was in two wars,” Gus said.
“But we’re not studying any war,” she said sweetly. “You know, Miss Benet makes up lesson plans every night, and there’s not enough days left in the year to have special guests like your grandfather. I’m sorry, but he can’t come.”
“Oh, he’s here now,” said Gus brightly. “He’s waiting outside.”
“He is?” she asked, alarmed.
Gus confirmed this. Miss Benet managed to keep the smile pasted on her face until she slipped out of the room. Down the hall, she found an aide and asked her to check the playground benches for any old men who might possibly look homeless. Returning to class, where Gus was blithely doodling on his math book, she collected worksheets from every desk, giving stickers to children who had finished them. The aide, Mrs. Dawes, tapped at the door.
“No one’s out there, Katie,” she said. Miss Benet approached the door and quietly suggested someone be sent outside every twenty minutes or so for the rest of the day—just to be safe. Mrs. Dawes gave her a strange look and left.
After that, to her relief, it was time to dismiss them for recess. She escaped to the teacher’s lounge, where she sat with her older colleagues and had a long lunch of celery sticks, tuna fish on toasted bagel, and tea. When she returned to the classroom, the students had already taken their seats and were being uncharacteristically quiet. A bear-like old man was sitting by the blackboard.
Miss Benet tugged at the hip of her dress. She found herself experiencing an odd and vaguely sorrowful disorientation, as if the floor were moving slowly backwards.
The old man at the blackboard looked awful. His fingers were etched with grease and he was built like a scarecrow draped with yogurty muscle. Each pupil of his eyes was a demonic bead of quicksilver. Gus glowed with pride.
“His granddad come for the presentation,” said someone.
Helplessly she cast her eyes around the room.
“Gus already did a presentation,” she said weakly. “Remember? It was on…”
A vague, perhaps imaginary recollection began to worry her—was it possible that she recalled, in the last two weeks, nodding indulgently and ignoring Gus as he asked permission for something? Had she allowed this to happen?
And the way the children were looking at the old man expectantly; had they been waiting for it? Had she been so inattentive as not to notice?
“He was in two wars,” Gus said.
The old man scratched his cheek with one claw. Burgundy blotches stained his neck. Studying him, she drew some confidence in his appearance. Handling this man would be like handling a large child. It takes a crisis to bring out the greatness in people, she thought, and I am a great teacher in the making.
“I’m afraid we may not have time for a presentation today,” she said firmly.
“You gonna talk, Grandpa?” prompted Gus. No one made any sign of having heard Miss Benet.
The old man raised his disconcerting eyes. “Yes,” he said in a cheerful baritone—and in that one word, something happened in his voice. Miss Benet, queasy from being ignored, could not say exactly what the something was. But it had gravity and intonation, like the sharp, aromatic noises of an orchestra preparing to play.
Suddenly she was scared.
“Did he really go to the North Pole, Gus?” asked Maggie Keegan.
“Yeah,” said Gus.
Gus started to say something more, but now the old man spoke again, this time in a full sentence, in that lordly baritone. The teacher felt her advantage fully yanked from under her. [...]