Sophie had the extreme urge to scratch her face. Claw at her cheeks, pat her forehead, rub the whole thing, but she wasn’t allowed to. Touching her face would mean that she would be sent home, and she couldn’t be sent home because her parents were at work and there was nobody home to take care of her.
Sophie wriggled in her seat instead. It was plastic, red, and creaky—a screw was probably inching its way out—and tapped one finger against her desk. The plastic glove stuck slightly to the wooden surface before peeling off like a Band-Aid. Stick, peel…pop. the glove ripped elastically off the desk and a small bubble of air cushioned Sophie’s finger’s very tip. Stick, peel…pop. Stick, peel…pop. Eventually the glove lost all its stickiness and the process went quicker. Stick, peel, pop. Stick, peel, pop. Stick, pop. Stick, pop. Pop. Pop. That got boring.
Sophie turned around and scanned the bare room. Acres of shiny tile floor, reeking of Clorox, stretched in all directions, except Sophie’s right side, because there was a wall there. A wall with a window that was barred open and allowed a cool breeze to trickle in. Sophie had an excellent view of outside: the playground, with one linked swing swaying softly in the breeze and shriveled leaves and grains of sand chasing each other after being swept off the sandbox. It would have been a perfect time to play outside but because “Aaron” was the very first last name in Sophie’s grade’s alphabetical roster she was the first to be funneled into the classroom.
Sophie gazed wistfully at the lucky end-of-the-alphabetters still in line. Though they were standing too far apart to giggle or whisper, a few students shouted greetings at each other but most stood placid with their arms spread wide, soaking in the sun and fresh air. How nice fresh air would smell! Sophie was fairly certain she would be intoxicated by Clorox even with the window open.
“First Day of School,” an image read on the white board, though there were no markers or erasers; instead, a piece of paper at the teacher’s desk was projected. “Welcome Third Graders!” A simple smiley face mocked Sophie. Everybody knew you couldn’t see anybody else’s mouths through their facemasks, yet the smiley face was there, bare, and uncovered.
Sophie stood up and stretched her arms high, then rotated completely around the other way. In the back of the classroom stood a wooden bookshelf, tiered for easy access, but stocked with hand wipes and sanitary spray instead of anything readable. Maybe the class’s first assigned book would actually be the safety panel explaining how the products should “not be placed in reach of kids, blah blah blah,” despite the fact that to even enter the school each student was equipped with packs of likely toxically potent hand-sanitizer.
As more students entered the room the smell of clean grew and grew until it wafted up Sophie’s nasal passages and burned, leaving her with a terrible headache. She stuck her head out the window and gulped fresh air through her mouth. It still tasted like the doctor’s office, but more latex-gloves-and-pretzels then alcohol-swabs.
A crash interrupted Sophie’s reverie, and she cautiously returned to the room, greeted by a purple pencil rolling her way.
“Sorry!” Harry Turner exclaimed. The top of his robot-backpack had unzipped itself, probably from too heavy a load and too much use, and a plastic pencil case fell out and burst all over like a ripped pillowcase at Halloween. “I’m sorry!”
“Harold Turner, you should really keep better care of your supplies,” pretentious Louise Brown chastised.
Sophie herself was used to tripping and spilling and knew how awful it was to be yelled at, so she decided to defend Harry. “It’s alright. I’ll help you.”
Sophie reached down to pick up the pencil before jerking back up as if it had stung her. She couldn’t touch anybody else’s things. But then how could she return the pencil? How confusing social distancing was!
“You can keep it,” Harry said dejectedly, nodding towards the pencil, likely aware that anything out of his reach would no longer be his.
“No, I can’t,” Sophie corrected gently, “because you touched it, so now I can’t touch it.”
“Oh.” Harry also looked confused. “Then what’ll we do?”
“Leave it there!” Louise instructed, though nobody listened to her. “Everybody avoid the pencil.” See, Louise wasn’t the teacher, so her decisions held no weight.
“I know!” Sophie shouted brilliantly. “I didn’t touch my shoes, so I’ll kick it to you!” She slid forward in her seat until her foot dangled perpendicular to the floor, protruding from the front of the desk, and prepared to kick when Louise shrieked.
“What?” Everybody in the class was growing exasperated. This pencil escapade was the most social contact anybody would have in weeks, and Louise was ruining it.
“You touched your shoes when you put them on, didn’t you?” Louise interrogated. “That defeats the point of kicking the pencil. You might as well pick it up!” And spread your germs with it was implied.
Sophie tapped her chin. It was impossible for any inch of her to touch anybody else because her hands had undoubtedly been in close proximity. If only she could take off her shoes and wipe the germs off. But then she would be touching them with a Clorox wipe, and her hands would also have been touching that wipe, so basically her hands would be touching her shoes all over again…the smell was really getting to Sophie’s head. It made her brain all foggy. She couldn’t think properly.
“I don’t know. I’ll just put a glove on my shoe or something!” Sophie snapped. She pulled the plastic cover out of her pants pocket, which she could do because she was carrying about fifteen of them, and stretched it over her lime sneaker, careful not to let the lace-tips poke too many large hole. Faintly she heard Louise complain about something else but ignored her, which was easy because she sounded like a fly buzzing outside her ear.
Once the shoe was ready, she kicked the pencil back to Harry and just as she was rolling her glove back up the teacher’s clacking shoes strode in.
“Good morning class!” This teacher wasn’t carrying anything. She just stood at the front of the room with her cat-eye glasses perched neatly above her mask—with small apples and rulers appropriately adorning the print—and probably smiled judging by the way her eyes crinkled. “As you know we’ve got the coronavirus going on, but this school setup will help us all adjust to a new normal.”
Sophie tuned out the teacher and turned around to where Harry was seated in the back of the room, spraying his pencils with sanitizer before wrapping them in tissue and placing them gingerly in a box. Hidden in her protective mask she giggled at the irony. The only normal thing was the teacher’s customary beginning-of-the-year lecture.