Miss Fremen was a good teacher. Had been for twenty years. She taught fourth grade the year I started teaching. I had fifth grade. I came to her with my problems, which were many and unbearable, at least it seemed so to me.
"What do you do," I asked her despairingly as we stood monitoring the dusty playground during recess, "about going to the bathroom? I mean, one starts and then they all want to go. I know they all don't have to go, but they say they do. And if I don't let anybody go, there's liable to be an accident. And they're all taking advantage of me. I know they are."
Miss Fremen's wrinkles gathered into a smile for me. The faintly suspicious smile, the not altogether committal smile teachers cultivate.
"The very first day of class I tell them," she said, drawing herself up to a state of forthright dignity to illustrate how she told them, "little people, I can tell when you really have to go to the bathroom and when you don't. So I warn you, I just warn you not to ask to be excused unless it's urgent." Miss Fremen stood there frozen for a moment, clad in what had every appearance of an armored corset under her thin summer voile, her face square and omniscient, her hair kinky, spatulate, and slightly burned from a recent permanent.
"How marvelous!" I sighed. "But Miss Fremen, I wouldn't dare try it. I've got a weak face." I didn't say it, but I thought that the corset had a lot to do with it, too. And if I tried to wear a corset, I'd have to hold it on with scotch tape.
"Oh, now, it's not weak," Miss Fremen said sympathetically, the words scratching grandly over the ancient grate in her throat. You have to talk loud on the playground to be heard at all. "You just haven't learned to frown right. When I was in Normal School we learned how to teach before we graduated. Nowadays they don't teach you anything practical. It's not your fault, Lillian," she went on, grating more gently, "they closed up all the Normal Schools. But you'll learn. Don't worry."
· · · · ·
The bell rang, as it always does in the middle of conversations, and we went on up. Paralyzed with admiration, I watched her fourth grade marching silently into the room next to mine. The cadence was perfect. No face was sullen. No face rebellious. Miss Fremen's wrinkles dropped into a wink for me, and she closed her door silently. My door creaked noisily as I herded in two thirteen-year-old stragglers, both a head taller than me. Then, practicing my Frown, I went about the room collecting the post-recess tribute of marbles, gum, rubber bands, paper clips, and an occasional frog. Miss Fremen, I thought enviously, had probably not had a problem in fifteen years. No one would think of chewing gum or clinking marbles or shooting paper clips in her class.
But I was wrong about the problem. I noticed her going about with a worried frown after a few weeks. No one else noticed it, because a worried frown differs only in very subtle ways from a natural, authoritarian frown. But I had made a special study of Miss Fremen, particularly of her facial expressions, and I knew something was wrong.
"Lillian," she told me one day when it was our turn to supervise the playground again. "I've been a teacher a long, long time." She was breathing in the dust like the purest mountain air, and her eyes darted around, from plain habit, so that no corner escaped her. She frowned. "I don't like that Sansoni boy talking to those third graders," she said. She collared a passing pupil. "Go tell Billy Sansoni I said to play by the big boys." She turned to me. "Billy's going to be just like his daddy." She shook her head fatalistically. "Bad blood in the family."
"What were you going to say before?" I asked. I was anxious to know what sort of problem could possibly beset a teacher like Miss Fremen. It had to be a school problem. Miss Fremen didn't have any other life.
"Oh," she said, the worried frown replacing the authoritarian frown, "a very funny thing. Peculiar. In all the years I've been teaching, there's never been anything like it. I really ought to tell Mr. Buras. But I don't know. He's a fine principal and a fine disciplinarian, even if he's not allowed to spank any more. But he's not a man to understand anything that's, you know, peculiar."
"Yes?" My curiosity was becoming more vulgar all the time, but I tried to keep it out of my voice.
"You remember that conversation we had back when the term opened? About how to keep the children from making a game out of asking to be excused?"
"I remember it vividly," I answered.
"Well, there's one little boy in my room. Jerome. He's from one of those migratory families. Oil fields or fruit picking. I'm not sure which. This Jerome. I can tell when he has to go to the bathroom."
"Well," I said, feeling sort of let down, "that's not very surprising. After all, when you've been around children for so long, little things like their facial expression and their tone of voice
"Um!" Miss Fremen said emphatically. "No. You don't understand. You see
Get off those bars, Emanuel. Those are for the swings. You'll kill yourself, and I'll get blamed." Emanuel slid down swiftly.
"I know it before he says anything," Miss Fremen went on. "He'll be just sitting there, bent over his workbook. One day I told him, 'All right, Jerome, you may be excused.' And then the children called it to my attention that he hadn't asked to be excused."
"But he went?"
"Oh, yes. He had to."
"Maybe your imagination," I said, coughing from the dusty air. "After all, they always welcome the chance to get out of the room."
"I've been teaching for twenty years," Miss Fremen said indignantly. "I don't have any imagination."
I didn't know whether to grin or not, so I didn't.
"And it isn't only that. You know, they changed the workbooks last year, and there are a few things that have different answers now than they did when I was a girl, and several times Jerome has given my answers, and how would he know
At that moment the bell rang, and I didn't think much more about it, being busy keeping my class in line and being annoyed with Jerry Dufossat, who was leering at me with gum in his mouth.
It was that afternoon we had the bomb scare. It is also one of the few times in my life I've been left absolutely alone with a decision, and done the unobvious thing, because it was such a terrible chance to take.
You know, teachers do a lot of things besides teach. And we have to worry about a lot of things besides whether Johnny can read.
One of the things we have to worry about is the children's safety. And for that, one of the last things in the world we want to see is a strange man hanging around the school yard.
Well, I saw one, that lunch hour, but he just walked around the block and watched the children and didn't try to talk to them or come into the school yard, so I just kept an eye on him. He was a slouched, dull-eyed man, and he looked so much like a degenerate character I decided he must be an actor practicing.
· · · · ·
The second time he came around the block, I went over and asked if he were the father of one of the children in the school yard.
"Yeah," he said, pointing indeterminately, and slouched on.
He smelled like liquor. But sometimes it's cough syrup and he did have a cough. A hack, now and then, like a comment on whatever dreary thoughts such a man must have.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought I'd better call him back and tell him to take his postprandial strolls somewhere else, because teachers have to be very nervy, but just then the bell rangand you can't imagine how many problems are solved, or never get solved, because bells ring.
Well, I was thinking I'd better send a little note to Mr. Buras, but first I had to collect the impedimenta the kids had left on the playgroundthe latest thing was pornographic telescopesand then we had arithmetic, which is always a strain on me because I've never really adjusted to the fact that ¼ + ¼ = ½.
Anyway, by two o'clock I was just getting around to the note and had five fraction problems on the board for the children to dowhen the door opened and in he walked.
I didn't like the way he walked.
Nor the way he looked.
Cough medicine, to my knowledge, does not produce this effect.
"He's drunk," someone whispered.
"Nah, crazy," someone else whispered, and I gave them my Look, which, after several months, was really getting rather good.
It's too bad fifth-grade children know what drunkenness is. But they do, you know. You have to resign yourself to all sorts of things about children.
I gave the man my Look, too, and he appeared very ill at ease, because sometimes even grown people feel overawed when they walk into a school. Especially the kind of grown people who used to get called to the principal's office all the time.
"I come," he began, and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Come for my son."
I looked around the room. There was David Mines, a shy child strung too tall for his weight, sitting immobile. Only tears moved in his eyes. That would be the one.
"School is not out until three o'clock," I said. "Unless there is some unusual reason, I cannot let David go." Normally, of course, I wouldn't even question a parent coming for a child early. But not with that expression on David's face.
"Got a reason," Mr. Mines said. "My boy. David!" he called to the boy. But he was unsure of himself. He was a man used to being pushed around. It was obviously hard for him to stand on his own two feet.
Literally and figuratively.
"Sit down, David!" I said peremptorily. A thought was coming to me with cold horror. And it was such a bad thought I tried to hide from it. But I could not.
"Sit down, please, Mr. Mines," I continued, in the same tone I used with David. "In the last desk on the row next to the windows." Because I recalled the recent case of the man who set off a bomb in a school yard. And although everybody did what they could and did what was expected and the school authorities were not to be blamedwell, perhaps it might be better in such a case not to do what was to be expected.
Of course, I had no real reason to think Mr. Mines had set a bomb anywhere. Maybe he'd just come to take David for a dental appointment and, what with the cough medicine and my authoritative attitude, he was too confused to say so.
On the other hand, I could feel there was something odd about the whole thing.
The proper thing to do was send the man to Mr. Buras.
In which case Mr. Buras would see only two choices. Put the man out, by force if necessary, if he seemed dangerously drunk, or take David out of school and make him go with his daddy. And why not, except for my intuition?
Mr. Mines sat there, overflowing the little desk, his feet shifty, some internal discomfort making a line between his brows.
"Please wait a few moments, Mr. Mines. We have our spelling lesson now, and it's very important that David should not miss it. Children, get out your spellers."
We had had our spelling lesson, of course, at eleven o'clock in the morning.
Not a child betrayed me. The room was silent as the grave.
"Page thirty-four," I said. And the monotonous chant began. "Desert, D-E-S-E-R-T." What was I going to do? What was Mr. Mines thinking, sitting there? If only I could read his
SEND ME JEROME, I wrote on a slip of paper.
"Who's the messenger for today?" I asked, as casually as possible, between Government and Guide.
Joyce stood up, her lightboned face a little pink with excitement, but shoulders square and fully up to whatever responsibility I was going to put on her.
Mr. Mines was looking suspiciously at the note.
"It's for Miss Fremen in the fourth grade," I told Joyce, loud enough for all to hear. "Tell her it's for the book lists."
Miss Fremen might well wonder what Jerome had to do with the book lists. But Miss Fremen was not one to waste time satisfying idle curiosity on a busy school day.
Mr. Mines didn't have anything with him that looked like a bomb. But it would have been easy enough for him to sneak a suitcase in when classes were going on after lunch and hide it somewhere. In a lavatory or a broom closet.
I could just let him take David out and have the school searched. But suppose it was where no one could find it?
Or I could ask Mr. Buras to clear the school. On what grounds? That David's daddy looked like a bum? In this neighborhood, a good third of the daddies looked like bums. Hell, they are bums. Mr. Buras couldn't clear the school every time one of them came aroundnot that this kind of daddies make a habit of coming around.
Mr. Mines was watching the clock, his face silvery with perspiration where the sun caught it. Every time the clock hand jumped another minute, Mr. Mines passed his hand over his forehead.
"Spelling lesson's over," he said, when we got to "yule." He stood up uncertainly. "C'mon, David."
"David may not be excused yet," I said firmly. "We have to make a sentence with each of the words."
Mr. Mines stood there, awkward, by the little desk. "Then I'll have to leave without him."
· · · · ·
The room was so quiet you would have thought all the children had stopped breathing at once.
"Thunk!" went the minute hand of the clock.
"You may not be excused," I snapped, sure this would not work, wondering where I got that kind of nerve.
Mr. Mines sat back down, his eyes dull. "Yes, ma'am," he said. Then he looked at the clock and stood up again. "How long?" he asked, and he wiped at the edge of his mouth.
"Half an hour," I said. I gripped the end of a ruler tightly in my right hand and stood in front of the class, tapping the ruler into the palm of my left hand. "Delia," I said, "make a sentence with 'automatic' showing you know what the word means."
"Thunk!" went the minute hand of the clock as Delia stood up and the class waited for her somewhat ponderous mind to get into action.
Where was Jerome?
· · · · ·
"Half an hour's too long," Mr. Mines said.
"Automatic," said Delia slowly. "We have an automatic defroster on our refrigerator."
"Um," I said. "You used the word right, but can someone else give us a sentence to show what the word means?"
Several hands went up.
Mr. Mines was edging across the back of the room.
Where was Jerome?
"Just a moment," I said, slapping the ruler hard against my palm.
"Have to get out of here," he said. But he was edging slowly, moving his feet carefully, as though he thought this was making him invisible.
"Please stay where you are a moment," I said. "Emily, let us hear your sentence."
"An automatic dishwasher washes the dishes by itself without you having to do anything," said Emily with her usual prim correctness. Emily always wore starched plaid dresses with little white collars, and I couldn't help wondering if this were not what made her right all the time.
"Very good," I said. "The 'auto' part of the word means 'self.' Like an automobile is something that runs by itself instead of having to be pulled by horses." I hunted around in my distracted mind for other "auto" words suitable for the fifth grade.
"Thunk!" went the clock.
The door clattered, creaked, and opened, and in came Joyce leading Jerome. Joyce carefully closed the door behind her and led Jerome to where I was standing in front of the blackboard.
Gerald had his hand up, swelling out of his desk with eagerness. Poor Gerald so seldom knew anything at all that whenever his hand was one of the raised ones, I called on him. "Yes, Gerald?"
"An autocrat," he said, triumphantly remembering from the morning spelling lesson, "is a man who is king all by himself instead of having a president and senators."
Jerome just stood there. Wondering, no doubt, what forgotten misdemeanor on the playground I might want to scold him about.
I wondered what it was I had expected him to do about Mr. Mines.
"Jerome," I said, taking him by the shoulders and turning him to face the back of the room, "this is David's daddy, Mr. Mines."
Puzzled, Jerome looked.
Mr. Mines was at the door, his hand on the knob, his face pale and frightened.
"Thunk!" went the clock.
Suddenly I could feel Jerome's little body grow taut under my hands, and he looked around at me with bottomless eyes.
"It's going to blow up," he said, "when the hands are like that." And he made two-thirty with his arms.
I swallowed and looked around at the clock.
"Bang!" went the door. It was Mr. Mines, gone.
And Jerome and I were alone with it. We were the only ones who really knew.
"Monitor!" I said, and Gerald marched up and came to the front of the class.
"Messenger!" I said, and Delia marched up. "Get Mr. Buras immediately."
I brought Jerome outside the room and closed the door behind me. It was too late to try to catch Mr. Mines. It was too late for almost anything. It was all up to Jerome, now.
· · · · ·
Through the glass-topped door I could see David with his head down on his desk, quietly sobbing. He didn't know about the bomb. But he knew about his daddy. And now everyone else did, too.
"Thunk!" went the clock in the hall.
"Where is it, Jerome?"
"A dark place," he said. "A little place."
I ran down the hall to the broom closet.
Mr. Buras came out of his office with Delia.
"Go back into the room, Delia," I said. "Run."
"There's a bomb in the school," I said. "I'm finding it now. We have four minutes."
"I'll fill a washtub with water," he said, "while I get the kids out and call the police."
There was no time to find out how I knew or if I was crazy.
He looked into the seventh-grade room and called out three of the big boys.
He rang the bell for fire drill. But there wouldn't be time. Time. I hoped my class would know enough to follow Miss Fremen's and get out safely without me.
Jerome and I ran to the little room where old books and the movie projector are kept. He shook his head.
"Which way?" I asked.
He didn't know. Only, he would know the room if he saw it.
I waved my class toward Miss Fremen's room as they came filing out. One look and she took them over.
Small, dark room. Jerome and I ran down the stairs to the boys' lavatory. He shook his head.
We rushed in and out of cloak rooms.
"Jerome," I said. "You've got to. What else besides small, dark room?"
"Scared. Very scared."
"Of course. What else?"
"No. Scared of a whipping. Scared of God."
"Scared of " I dragged Jerome into Mr. Buras's office. "Surely not here? And it isn't small and dark."
"Almost," said Jerome. "This is how it feels, but this isn't where it is."
I looked around the office. So bare and clean. No big, empty boxes with small, dark places in them.
"The john!" I cried, for there is a little men's room attached to the principal's office. I yanked open the door.
"Yes!" said Jerome. "Oh, quickly!"
Yes, but where? Such a bare, clean little room. He must have slipped in during lunch hour, probably even before I saw him hanging around the playground.
Where? Just walls, the wash basinthe radiator! It was too warm a day for the heat to be on, and perhaps there was room behindthere it was!
"Run, Jerome," I cried, and I edged the thing out carefully. It was a briefcase affair, with one broken handle. A sad, forgotten briefcase.
But Jerome didn't run. He hung on to the back of my skirt and followed me into the teachers' washroom, where I could hear the washtub filling up.
I threw the briefcase into the washtub and splashed water all over Jerome and me, and I pulled him out of the room and closed the door behind me and sat down in the middle of the hall and had hysterics.
Mr. Buras was there, and it was a while before I realized he had two aspirin tablets and a glass of water for me.
"Thank you," I said. "Oh, dear God."
"Come in my office and sit down," Mr. Buras said. "The police will be here any minute. Maybe they can catch him. If you can describe him."
I stood up as best I could, ashamed of having broken down in front of Jerome. Children are terribly frightened when grown people lose control.
We walked through the hollow school, so strange with all the children outside. I looked down at Jerome. Those eyes! I thought of the things he must know, with that reaching mind of his. He knew. He knew the most frightful thing there is to know in the whole world. That there is nobody, nobody at all who is sure about anything. Children should not have to know this thing.
"Can you describe him? Do you know who it was?"
I paused, passing the door of my room, for something caught my eye through the glass.
It was David, his head still in his arms, all alone, waiting for the fire to come. So many things were worse than death.
"It was " Why did I have to be the one to tell? Why was this responsibility mine?
I looked at Jerome. His, too. So many responsibilities would be his.
"It was David's father," I said, and I went in to David.
Maybe there would be some assurance I could give David.
But not Jerome.
For he would know assurance was not mine to give.
Nor anyone else's.