BY FRANI O’TOOLE
Below is a class profile of the students in your rising fourth-grade class, as was given to me at the start of last year. The circumstances were different then, but, with this particular group, some form of introduction felt necessary…
Victor will steal things from your desk. First go the paper clips, then your 100% stickers, the apple from lunch, the photo of your three-month old dog Ruby. At the end of the year, he will present you with a collage of these objects. It’s a portrait. The missing stapler is your eyebrow. The paperweight is an earring. Ruby is the birthmark on your neck that’s only visible when your hair is in a ponytail.
Madeline, Hannah, and Josephine are inseparable. They are girl scouts, and every day at snack time they organize a guerrilla fundraiser: desks pushed together, a display of lunchbox goods for sale. “A pudding cup for the hurricane relief effort!” they’ll say, adjusting their girl scout sashes. “Pretzel sticks to save the manatees!”
Penelope smokes e-cigarettes. You first notice this in mid-September when you lean in to adjust a piece of macaroni on her artwork and smell it on her breath. You will not have confirmation until late-October, when you see her leaning against the building after school. She’ll be standing with one of her Mary Janes pressed against the bricks and for a second you’ll think the cigarette dangling from the side of her mouth is just a lollipop. Then she takes a drag. When she exhales, she looks up at the autumnal sky and blows smoke upward, fountainlike.
In response to the note you write to Penelope’s mother, a perfumed card will arrive on your desk that says It’s for her nerves. —Lucia Descartes, M.D. And, yes, the cursive looks awfully similar to Penelope’s, but when you return from recess duty that day to inspect the lettering further, the card will be gone, only to reappear in June as the fold of your collarbone in Victor’s collage.
Jeffrey might wear an inappropriate costume for Halloween, e.g. the protagonist from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. When he says who he is, you will assume naiveté, but that’s incorrect. As it turns out, Absalom, Absalom! is Jeffrey’s favorite work of southern gothic fiction, and while you’re busy trying to set up for the costume parade, he will whisper all its lurid details down the line. It happens that these nine-year olds understand the mature content, and shocked expressions spread person to person, like germs.
Hugh pronounces the “g” in his name. No one knows which came first, the hardening of the “g” or Hugh’s affectionate nature. He gives you a hug every the end of each day. He also cries frequently, but only at beautiful things. At the first snowfall in November. When the soccer field grass is dewy and feels like moss. The sunflower on the window sill and the science of heliotropism—that plants crane their necks toward sources of light, like swans, like us.
Sabine has synesthesia. When you write on the white board, she will tell you which color marker to use. Monday is mint-green and Friday is tangerine. If you teach Benedict Arnold, Sabine will crinkle her nose and announce that Benedict Arnold smells like roast beef. The multiplication tables taste like pumpernickel. The word mañana has the consistency of whipped cream.
Alexander is going gray. Every few weeks, the trio of girls gather around his head to preen out all the white strands. They look like seamstresses when they do it, sewing and unsewing ribbons. After they finish, the girls sweep the threads into their palms and clap their hands over the trash bin. Alexander closes his eyes and lifts his cheek, and each girl gives him a kiss for his bravery.
Maybe it’s the just the hair, but Alexander has the demeanor of a Kennedy. With oral reports, he either converts the milk carton into a soapbox or paces the aisles like an army officer. After our Revolutionary War unit, he suggested a class constitution, and the hours following were spent huddled around a square of lined paper. At the end of the day, they signed the document in gel pen, waited after school for it to be laminated, and everyone helped thumbnail it on the cork board next to the photo of Evan.
Last year’s directory was given to me at the suggestion of the grief counselor, and it talked mostly about him—Evan. I’m told that the day of the accident, he and Penelope had lunch together, as they had since Evan hid a Valentine’s card in one of her Mary Janes. In class, Evan shared an essay on his grandfather’s naval service. Alexander went to his house after school; they played hopscotch in the driveway. Alexander’s mom picked him up at five, and ten minutes later, a teenager drove down the same road, opening the glove compartment to look for
Penelope tends to the rose under the flagpole.
Alexander leads the class at the start of every recess to hold hands and say a prayer.
On May 12th, the anniversary of the Evan’s death, Victor makes eight dreamcatchers and hangs one on every cubby hook. Madeline, Hannah, and Josephine pass out yellow bows with Evan’s name embroidered in blue. Sabine and Jeffrey sit with Hugh on a beanbag when he starts to cry.
When you dismiss them that day, you realize by the way they congregate that they’re going someplace together. They leave the classroom, cascade down the school steps, and never turn back. Before they get too far down the sidewalk, you can make out the bounce of the bows tied to their backpacks and the dreamcatchers in their hands and Sabine is putting her jacket around Hugh and Alexander’s gray is catching the sunlight and is Penelope smoking and a whole nine months have gone by and, well, you have so much to learn.