My job as an elementary-school teacher ended abruptly after eight weeks. Walking heavily to my car, I was devastated, but I recognize now that I was never cut out to be a teacher, for reasons that have nothing to do with the circumstances of my departure. While I don’t regret my lost career in education, the circumstances continue to puzzle me. They gnaw at me sometimes. They may even amuse me. Over the years, in my quiet hours of contemplation, usually in the car, when I’ve wondered why my life went one way and not another, or why what is now widely obvious about the multiformity of human sentiment was not clear then, I’ve employed guess- work and imagination to reconstruct that strange, climactic afternoon. This is what I’ve come up with.
As is typical in grade school, lunch and recess that day were conducted unconscionably early, well before noon, I think, and the rest of the day stretched before my second-grade class like the voids of outer space. Room 112 had some heads-on-table “quiet time” and then a penmanship lesson, and I was beginning to understand that being a teacher could be as tedious as being a student. I instructed the kids, a few of them yawning or nearly dozing, to perform some writing exercises, but I could see, as clearly as if I were looking into an open pot, that the class was beginning to simmer and boil into general restlessness. Pencils rolled off desks. Ambitious doodling projects were undertaken. I myself was succumbing to an almost physically painful las- situde, and the desire to combat it seemed as urgent as if I were fighting for my life—or at least for my youth. I was just twenty-four. I paced the front of the room and smoothed my solid-blue tie, which, as an assertion of my independence, I kept unclipped. I knew it was a modest assertion. I stepped into the hallway for a moment, hoping that perhaps another teacher would have come out at the same time, for the same reason, and we could wave hello. No, the hall was empty. I went back to my desk. Aware that I was being more reckless now, I wrote a jesting, cryptic note to the lone friend I had acquired among my colleagues, a fifth-grade teacher, put it in a blank manila envelope, and called on one of the students to deliver it.
He was a slight, sallow boy, a boy named Sammy. He had finished his exercises several minutes earlier and had evidently fallen into a stupor so deep he was not even daydreaming. My calling of his name caught the mind of the class several moments before it caught his. Something must have heaved inside him then. He reddened. I tried to give him a reassuring smile, but he looked frightened by the attention he was suddenly receiving. I showed him the envelope. I leaned against my desk, waiting, and in the time it took me to get his attention, I began to change my mind about the wisdom of giving it to him. The boy rose like a rocket, very slowly, struggling to build power before he cleared the launchpad. Some of the girls in the class tittered.