J. Galton. 11/29/22 2274 words
The back door banged open. Cleo stormed in. Dropped her bag, kicked it. Head down she surged toward the stairs.
“Sissy, dear” even as I said it, I knew the pet name was a mistake. “Close the door. You don't live in”
“I'm not sissy. I'm not dear.” Cleo's voice sounded close to tears. “And,” big sniff, “It smells like a barn.”
Almost finished with the spread sheet which was due at noon, I did not have time for this, any of it. Our preteen daughter retraced her steps, closed the door and
mumbled, “There. You happy, now.”
“Maybe a little more than you.” She had me. I was the adult in the room. I closed my laptop.
Turned off Mozart's Requiem “What happened?” I spread my arms in greeting. “There's some new cider. Want to try it?”
Cleo raised her eyes but remained stock still.
“And molasses cookies. That's what I'm going to have.”
Her eyes cleared. Her lips quivered. Her story, halting at first and then in rising bursts tumbled
'Ms Watson, the new social studies teacher.'
'The one with hair down to here' a sweeping gesture over her backside, 'and wears it like in all
sorts of stupid, crazy ways.'
I raised an eyebrow. Parts of the story, like all stories, were to be ignored except to try to tease out
what was genuine to Cleo and what might be borrowed from classmates.
'Today, she gave us all extra long, extra stupid homework. She's like that. Like vindicative. Or
something like that. We had an argument in class.'
A pause for cider. I refrained from correcting vindictive, knew it was not Cleo's word, refrained
from asking who we was.
'Samantha started it by asking if she'd watched the t.v. special about searching for Cleopatra's
grave. On purpose, she stretched out the cleo part. It was on last night, you know like the one you wouldn't let me watch.'
An unnecessary dig. Cleo knows full well the family motto: the less you watch the more you know.
'Of course, right away, half the class turns and stares at me like Samantha was pointing right at me because I'd not sat with her at lunch. But Ms. Watson said that's silly. It was a fake docu drama because Cleopatra is a myth, not a real person. She always does that like we don't know what myth means. Not a queen and she died long before the pyramids were built.'
Cider glass emptied and refilled, one cookie gone.
'Clarance called out without raising his hand. He does that all the time even though he's been told a thousand and ten times the rule about you have to raise your hand, pretending like he's a good student and not the class clown. Should we be writing all this down. And, of course, Ms. Watson thanks Clarence and spends like the next twenty minutes explaining about taking class notes.'
A pause for more cider and another cookie.
'Then she projected a map of Egypt on the white board and explained like we were all still in first grade the blue was the Mediterranean ocean.'
I blurted, “Isn't it called a sea?” Cleo shrugged. Gave me a look as if maybe I were a third grader. Bit into another cookie.
'She asked if anyone knew what that meant and of course right away Cynthia called out middle earth and I raised my hand to add that really was all of the world they knew at the time.'
I nodded, refrained from adding the word was Latin from a totally different civilization.
'I don't think Ms Watson heard me or what I said or if she even cared about it but like the next
thing she does with her pointer, she loves using her pointer. Samantha says she must think it's like a light sword. She traces it all along the blue line running down into Egypt and asks if anyone knows what the line is? And half the class groaned and someone called out the Nile. Then she uses her pointer not the little red laser dot to point to all the little lines where the Nile goes into the Mediterranean ocean and she says these are the fingers that anchor the river to the ocean like all rivers draw water from their oceans. I don't know who else got that or who else was even listening. It was like confusing. But the next thing Ms Watson said was these fingers that's where the Nile starts to flow down into Egypt and that's why the river floods all the time. I heard her say that. I know Samantha did too. Cause she looked right at me like she was going to laugh. So I raised my hand.'
The beeping of a truck backing up overrode Cleo's words. Clouds blocked the late afternoon sun. The kitchen dimmed. I flipped on the light. Cleo's face flushed with the power of her story. It became
a torrent and an ugly one. According to our daughter, she was the first but others joined in challenging the idea that the Mediterranean formed the Nile and flowed from there into Egypt. She and others said, the thin spread out lines, like fingers, were the delta where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean not where it starts. Someone added the Nile started in Lake Victoria. Ms Watson got angry, waved her pointer around slapped in on the map said it showed the Mediterranean was north and south was down like it is on all maps and we should all know that water runs down not up. But when Cleo persisted, she called Cleo stupid. The kitchen echoed with the word. I bit my lip reached out to take her hand. Unfazed, Cleo drew her hand back finished with how Ms Watson ordered her to stay after class and gave the whole class extra homework.
I winced, felt flattened, unsure what to say. It was a terrible story. Cleo's eyes searched for comfort, vindication, approval.
I reached for her hand again. “That's a sad, worrisome story.”
Cleo's small hand with its bitten nails nested in mine. Tentatively she leaned forward. “Shouldn't she really know which way the Nile goes?” A tiny smile. Her voice rose in pitch. “Couldn't she like just look that up?”
Was name calling at school so pervasive she didn't notice or care. Or was the direction of the Nile a defense mechanism? The facts of the Nile were problematic but calling a student stupid was outrageous.
A bark sounded at the door. Cleo jumped up, let Tomtom in. A raucous tangle of arms, legs and one tail gave her a proper welcome home.
“My turn,” I spread my arms wide again. “Next, come here and I'll give you a proper welcome home.”
Cleo stood in the circle of my arms. When she was three we'd called it her magic circle. She pressed her head into me. I brushed my hand through her pixie cut, admired the freckle scatter on her face. I loved that I could still bring her some ease. I hoped she would always be so open. I didn't ever want her to change. To the top of her head I said, “Would it help if I spoke to Ms. Watson or asked Dad to.”
Cleo broke away. “Oh. No. Don't do that. What's for dinner?” “Your favorite, mac and cheese. We'll talk to Dad at dinner.”
Burden shed, Cleo squared her shoulders. My heart smiled at how closely her posture mirrored Todd's.
“Do you have homework?”
She nodded “But first, Samantha said she was going to play soccer.” The door snapped shut
I didn't finish the spread sheet until after dinner.
That's how, three months later, after talking to Ms. Watson:
defiant and defensive by turns and without denying it, unwilling to acknowledge the inappropriateness of calling a student stupid. And after emailing back and forth for more than a week with the principal and finally getting an appointment to speak with Mr. Tompkins in his office: window looking out at the converted granary; high back, gleaming leather, swivel chair behind a highly polished desk, bare except for a single paperclip. For the eight minutes he granted us, he worried the clip until it broke. For him it was nothing more than child said teacher said. He leaned forward smiled broadly “You must know who I'm going to believe and support in such a situation.” Repeating that Ms Watson did not deny calling Cleo stupid made no difference.
And that's why Todd by my side, Cleo safely at home with a babysitter, we wound up being viewed as a disruptive curiosity by the mob attending the monthly, school board meeting. Board meetings usually sparsely attended were in the high school gym. Word must have gone out since every one of the cramped little folding chairs was occupied. And instead of only the college kid interning for our local daily, three reporters and a t.v. crew were on hand.
After an hours description of the new rules for how attendance would be tabulated and after a forty-seven minute debate about the best way to sort recycling the board chair smacked his gavel and called, “Is the parents present here in the hearing at least the mother of the sixth grade suspended student Cleo?”
A voice near us brayed, “Cleo's hardly a Christian name.”
The chairman nodded, “It's not the child's name but his rude and disruptive behavior.” “Sir.” Todd stood. “Excuse me. Cleo is our daughter, a girl.”
“Then why don't she look it.” Another female voice “No hair to speak of and always in pants.” I tugged on Todd's jacket, hoping he'd sit back down.
The chair nodded and tapped his gavel, pointed it at Todd and asked “Has your child been to Egypt?”
Todd shook his head and sat. I said, “No.”
The chair: “Have either of the pair of you ever been to Egypt?”
I shook my head.
“Exactly how then would your child know which way the Nile runs? Please explain to the board
exactly how he, or should it be she, would know something like that.” His voice rose “And if you can not explain your child's knowledge acquisition base we must assume it comes from our fine school. So, you should be thanking us not raising divisive issues.”
Real quick, as if in court, Todd stood up again, “We have no intention of being divisive or hurting anyone's sensibilities. In fact, first we would like to thank the school and its many hard working, fine teachers. Our concern is to unite around both a common set of facts and appropriate language for teacher student dialogue.”
A white haired woman sitting to the Chair's right said, “Surely it is not appropriate language for a student to contradict a teacher. Your daughter, is it, is reported to lack both proper restraint and manners. If she had a personal issue with the teacher why would she not show enough respect to speak to her teacher privately after class. That's how I raised mine boys and girls.”
I said, “Our daughter's concern was not a personal matter. She was trying to explain a question of fact which came up in class.”
Voices from the audience overlapped: “False pride is claiming you know things beyond your ken.” “A child should not be claiming facts.” “Spare the rod, indict the school. Happens every year.”
The chair tapped his gavel. A third board member spoke up. “Facts aren't everything. Manners and deference are crucial to good school proper functioning and they depend on better parenting skills.”
Across the raised stage, at the feet of the board members a broad bellied cat stalked, tail straight up. It wound itself around the chair's boots. He reached down and scratched behind its ears. The cat purred. The chair slipped something from his pocket, gave it to the cat. Another, louder purr.
The last board member added, “How might any child have the temerity to attempt to correct a teacher in public. I say clearly strong signs of defiance and worse clearly proof of a lack of proper manners and being ill bred.”
I thought of Cleo at home, hopefully by now tucked in bed. Wondered whether we could adequately prepare her for this world.
Todd leaned against me, whispered, “Suspended?” I whispered back, “I had no idea.” Shook my head. “Why? By whom?” Todd took my hand. The gavel banged. A recorded organ played the star bangled banner anthem. The crowd stood milled toward the neon red exits. I thought of how brave Cleo had been, worried how many reduced her story to she said, teacher said.
This too is a story. Mine. Like all stories parts of it are true, the Nile does flow north, you can
look that up. Other parts are also true. You can't look them up but you can feel them.
I've attended two other school board meetings. Cleo grew her hair out. She and her then
boyfriend were homecoming queen and king. She did not tell us of being stopped while driving with him for speeding.
We all change. Some more than others. I still help with spread sheets but have priced myself out of the market. This summer Todd will get a large bonus for retiring.
Ms Watson has moved up to teaching social studies at the high school. She emphasizes geography and she makes it very clear she maintains a low opinion of her students.