218. After School

James’ job:
Raise the flag, then
Lower it, when school was done.

Today he dawdled,
Though the bell had rung.
Inside the emptied classroom,
He spoke up:
“Oh, Miss? Pardon me?”
Miss Neal was grading papers.
She had heard him,
But she did not lift her eyes.
“May I speak to you,
Miss Neal?”
She nodded, her red pencil
Scratching fast.

She always seemed so busy.
Drawing breath,
James plunged headfirst.
“It’s Barker’s…
It’s about that history test.
The one we took,
The one he got the F on.
Well–”
James shuddered–
“It’s that test.
It isn’t he don’t know it.
Specially on the Civil War,
He knows–he lived there–”
Miss Neal frowned.
“And he studied in the book!
We both did that. It’s
What you say in class, though,
He don’t get.
The ones he missed, they’re
Ones you taught out loud.
That essay question,
You just read it out,
Not write to see–
The ones took from the book,
He got those right.”

Her forehead creased
As if she were in pain.
“Of course, Miss Neal,
He never told me so–
Why, I just noticed,
On his answer page”–
This was a lie, and
Sounded it, thought James–
“Oh no, why, Barker says
You’re sure the fairest teacher
Who he’s ever had….” Here
Hopefully, James
Smiled. “But things you
Teach from out that
Book you bring from
Home….He can’t get
Those things straight,
Of course….”
“It won’t matter.”

What? What had she said?
James frowned: he’d missed it.
“Beg your pardon, ma’am.
How’s that?”
She laid her pencil flat,
The papers done.
Beneath her gaze
James felt dismay:
The smoothly upswept hair,
The row of curls in back–
Her brooch, bright
Heartshaped pin–
Bespoke of better things to do
Than talk to him.
She had someplace to go.
She don’t have
Time, James thought:
I’ll make her late.

“I said, James,
It won’t matter.
Barker will be held back.
Since he’s failing third grade,
He’ll repeat.”
James, caught up short:
“Held back?
How long?”
She glanced up at the clock.
“You want the truth?”
She don’t talk right to me,
James thought. Talks
Like I’m not her pupil.
Like I’m no one, someone
Off the street.
“Truth is, I doubt
He’ll ever see the fourth.
This is it, for him.
He’s reached the end.”
James stared.

She made a face, impatient:
“James. Lord knows,
I’ve more to do
Than sit here chatting–
You need explanations?
Barker’s failing.
Check his grades. I’m
Sure you’ve seen his tests,
His work–he sticks to you
Like glue.”
“Sticks?” James, stunned–
“But, math–”
“Some 90’s, here and there.
Don’t change a thing.
He’s failing. You know,
Just like Hank.” James
Thought: but Hank don’t
Do his homework.
Barker does!
“Don’t tell me,”
Straightening papers,
Stacking tests,
“About the lectures,
How I turn around,
About he can’t read lips–
Can’t do this, that–
Well, if he can’t,
He can’t! How much,
You reckon, folks will
Go out of their way?”
James could not move.

“I got these papers here, to grade,
Then lesson plans. It hardly
Pays a living wage. Instead of
Cash, they give us scrip
The stores won’t take–
I got to to have some life,
Some time! So all this,
And to that you’d add,
I’m obliged to extra work
For some slow kid?”
That word–“kid”–
Slapped James’ face
And made it sting.

“He’s not slow,” James objected.
“Come on, James!
Cross the line last,
And you’re slow!
That’s what it means!
You make the finish,
Or you don’t. There’s schools
In cities, where the parents
Have the cash, and they have
Special classes–but not
Here. If parents are poor,
The school is too. Free
Market, see? And James,
You’ll thank me, one day,
I tried to tell you.
Let’s be honest:
He fails tests.”
“He knows–”
She waved her hand.
“James, go on. Shoo.
Go get the flag. Don’t you
Give me that look,
Neither.”

James retreated.
She called after: “If your
Buddy was some genius,
I’d agree!
But he’s not.
Oh, I know, there’s
Something there–
I’ve seen those themes.
But he isn’t–
Helen Keller!
You’ve heard tell of her?
Deaf! Blind!
And she writes books,
Talks aloud!
Don’t see her failing tests,
Or getting lost in someone’s
Backwoods public school.
The cream will rise.
Who’s stopping him?
Not me.”
James lingered at the door.
She shook her head:
“No. All this–extra time,
Extra special–no.
This world, no extras,
James. Get what you
Pay for: sink or swim.
I’ve never got help.
I’ve my cross,
My life to lead. My daddy’s
Waiting for me now. Bedridden,
Sick. He slaps me
When I clean him up.
What’d you expect?
Go on. Outside.”

A storm was rising.
Papers scudded past.
The flag chain beat the metal,
Like a mindless gong.
James walked up to the flagpole,
And plopped down.
He thought:
Who can fix this?
It’s not right.
Above his head,
The chain clanged
In the gale.
Ma can’t. Daddy can’t.
I can’t.
Then who? James thought.
He leaned against the pole.
Dirt danced rings round him.
He slumped back.
The sun dimmed
As the flag snapped,
Taut, then slack.

2 Responses to “218. After School”

  1. Grad Says:

    “Papers scudded past…” Loved it. You paint with words.

  2. sshaver Says:

    Reply’s on the Welcome Page.

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