I could sense they were looking around the room at each other, wondering why I was no longer talking. Some covered smiles with their hands, while others hunched over in their seats, worrying about their futures, how my silence might somehow affect them.
A little earlier, Josh had given me a picture, folded over like a card, like he knew somehow I had been thinking about leaving. I still had not unpacked the pencils and stapler from my book bag. It wasn’t the gum in my seat, or that my coffee mug was glued to the desk again that morning. It was none of those things. Not this time.
The stapler rested atop the letter from my husband’s lawyer. It marked the end of a year-long separation, the height of my disaffection toward everything. An anniversary of sorts. The letter rested atop my own letter of resignation. The lawyer’s letter arrived the day after I wrote mine.
Josh jabbed the card in the air in my direction, without saying anything, his eyes without expression except to tell me that the piece of paper he held before him was for me. It read, “Some Shoes Are Hard to Fill.” Beneath that he had drawn a picture of a dog, walking casually, a shoe in its mouth. The card itself was empty on the inside. Not one word. More than the picture and the words, the emptiness made the card difficult to dismiss. I could think of nothing to say.
He told me after he handed off the card, while the kids were all copying the last three pages of the E’s from the dictionary (a punishment I had only begun to use over the past few months when they could no longer be controlled because they sensed me slipping from them and they needed to know I still cared), that we never wanted to hurt you. He smiled only in the corner of his lips and walked quickly back to his seat, slowing just enough to tickle the ribs of the girl who he had proclaimed to love once during show and tell.
It was just before my silence, after catching a glimpse of the letter resting in my bag, that I turned my head to face the window, to hide the moisture in my eyes. I had stared a long time before I realized I was being watched by the students, who had one-by-one lifted their heads from their work to gaze at me. I meant to look at them sternly, but smiled instead. They returned their attention to the task before them, which they each worked on earnestly, stopping only to shake the cramps out of their hands until the afternoon recess bell rang.
They lined up single-file, without one reminder, without a single shove, without a single tease, and shuffled out the door, Josh at the head of the line, stepping in a calculated rhythm, which each student behind him followed. When I went to pick up their work, I found a note, an apology, which Josh had written and gotten every one of the students to sign. Some students drew hearts by their names. Some drew smiley faces, while others wrote in the neatest penmanship I had ever seen from them before. I watched them as they filled the empty lot, each of them playing diligently, absorbed in that very moment, as if no other moment existed in time, before or after.
I sat and watched filled with what I thought should have been shame. But it wasn’t.
I placed the stapler back on my desk and joined them outside, playing tag, and foursquare, until it was time to go in. When the bell rang, they all turned to me for direction. There, in the middle of that open green field, we stayed. We finished what we had come to do; we finished what we started.
After we returned to the room, we each wrote a story about a stranger. Someone we had never met before, who always was different than we were. I wrote one, too, my story filling three pages before I stopped to see their faces watching me, asking me to share my story first. I stood, and after clearing my throat, I read to them. When I was done and looked up from what I was reading, I found them all dreaming out the window. We stayed this way, looking, listening, breathing in unity with far off gazes, with wonderment.
When each of us had shared, we posted our stories by the door, to remind us every time we walked out into the world that it was us who believed or didn’t believe.
Students added to the wall pictures of their pets, their families, their favorite movie stars, building and layering the stories of their lives as strangers until the stories were the stories of themselves. Some even took down their papers and replaced the names of their characters with their own.
We would never write from our dictionaries again, except to look up words we wanted meaning to, which we added to the wall, until the wall was filled from floor to ceiling and spilled out into the hall.
At the end of the year, we would take it all down. We would share the pieces of ourselves with each other, writing notes on the backs of pictures to say, “stay in touch” and “you are my friend even though we never say hi.” We would bloom and open. As if that is what Josh had meant all along when he handed me that card with nothing in it but vast, improbable horizons.
Ralph Pennel’s writing has appeared in Common Ground Review, Ropes, The Cape Rock, Apercus Quarterly, Open to Interpretation, Ibbetson Street, The Smoking Poet, Unbound Press, Right Hand Pointing, Monologues From the Road, and various other journals in the U.S. and abroad. He has also published reviews with Cervena Barva Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Rain Taxi Review of Books. Ralph teaches literature at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts, and is the fiction editor for Midway Journal, an online literary journal publishing out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Ralph served as the judge of the 2013 WLP Dean’s Prize for Emerson College and has also been a guest lecturer at Emerson. He has worked as a volunteer for the Teaching Writing in the Prisons program with PEN New England and has taught workshops at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. His first poetry collection, A World Less Perfect for Dying In, will be published by Cervana Barva Press in January of 2015.