In honor of National Short Story Month, we will be posting some of the stories from the first Along the River anthology.
Up first is “First Day” by Daniel Tyx, which won second prize.
The panic began creeping into my body from the moment I pulled into the gravel parking lot at Josephina Aguilar Elementary School. Mr. Hernández, the head janitor, was out in a reflective orange vest directing the swarm of pick-ups and 70’s-era gas-guzzlers, herding the students into the gym that served as a holding pen until the day officially began. The school buses pulled around back, discharging dozens more students. As I waded through the crush of students into the still-empty hallways, I felt a tension branch up through my chest cavity, into my deltoids and neck, spreading outward until it had reached my hands, which I held clenched to try and make the shaking go away.
I waited, cocooned in the safety of my classroom, for 7:45 to arrive. I set out the name tents that I’d labored to write in my best cursive; I hadn’t written in cursive since junior high school, but I wanted to set a good example. When that was done, I adjusted and readjusted the desks to make sure the horseshoe was perfectly symmetrical. I was so occupied by keeping myself busy that I showed up a minute-and-a-half late to the gym. The other classes were already walking single-file down the hallway in my direction in total silence. Every student had their hands locked behind their backs like shackled inmates; later I would learn they were trained to walk that way since kindergarten to keep them from pushing and shoving in line.
When I arrived in the gym, there was only one line of students left. My class. My chest felt as though it had shrunk to half its normal size. I tried to take a deep breath and only managed a wheeze. They were just like all of the other classes, lined up perfectly, their feet on either side of a crack in the gym’s blue tile. I smiled as Mr. Cantú, the coach, dismissed them to leave. They stared straight ahead. No one smiled back.
They walked to the room with military precision, just like the other classes. Not knowing whether to walk at the head or the tail of the line, I ambled along somewhere in the middle, trying to catch someone’s eyes, telling myself that I wanted to reassure them. At the door’s threshold, the line stopped, waiting for my permission to enter the classroom. I strode to the front, remembering that I’d planned to shake their hands on the way in.
Each student’s hand felt different. Some were stiff and frigid from the air-conditioning, while others were warm and limp. I felt hands that were wet from nervousness, or dry and coarse, grimy-feeling. When everyone had found their name tent and settled into their assigned desk, I looked out and all I saw was a faceless sea of children. I rubbed my eyes, as if the problem were me not seeing straight. The sweat from my hands stung. It seemed odd that I could so clearly differentiate their hands, but that their faces all swam together. So many eyes.
I held up a piece of chalk, hoping they wouldn’t see my hand shaking. I wrote my name on the blackboard, slowly and deliberately, trying not to let the lines tremble. Mr. Walsh. It looked foreign written there, like a character from a nineteenth century novel.
I looked back up at the eyes. Every student sat with their back straight, their hands set in front of them on their desks. I cleared my throat. My mouth felt dry, insufficiently lubricated for words to squeeze out. I tapped my name on the board insistently with the chalk, as if trying to prove to myself that it were indeed my name. “Good morning, boys and girls,” I managed, finally, just as I’d practiced. “My name is Mr. Walsh.”
I was twenty-two years old, just out of college. Only a week earlier, I’d made the twenty-eight hour drive from Minnesota to Edinburg, Texas. I’d gone from living with my parents, passing myself off as an unemployed writer for a summer, to living in my grandfather’s vacant Winnebago trailer at the Cactus Gardens RV Park. It was his idea that I come here; he’d been arguing all along that I needed to get a real job. “All you need is a pulse,” he told me, when I protested that I was in way, shape or form qualified to teach elementary students. “The schools down there are growing faster than corn in July.” A month later, I found myself in deep South Texas, teaching at a country school surrounded by acre after acre of nothing but scrub brush.
The first activity I’d planned was coming up with the classroom rules. I decided not to post the rules in advance, but rather to solicit the student’s input and build the rules by classroom consensus. I’d seen a video on-line of a teacher doing this. She called on students one at a time from the multitude of raised hands, and they offered suggestions such as “no pinching” and “no tattletaling” which she expertly rephrased into positive-sounding “classroom expectations.”
“We’re going to start with a rule-building exercise,” I said. “Who would like to volunteer a classroom rule for us?” One hand went up.
“Yes?” I said. I looked at the name tent on the student’s desk. Ramón Garza. “What rule would you like to contribute?”
“Be respectful toward one another,” he said. I wrote it up on the blackboard, unsure how to proceed, since it had already been stated as a positive expectation. “Good,” I said. “What else?” I looked out at the rest of the eyes and waited for the hands to start shooting up. The students remained seated, looking as expressionless and about as animated as Lego people.
Only one hand was raised. It was still Ramón Garza. I noticed that he wasn’t sitting like the rest of the students. His legs were crossed underneath his desk, his feet not flat on the floor like the rest. As I surveyed the rest of the room, his hand began surging higher in the air, then oscillating back and forth wildly. “Sir, ooh, ooh me, sir,” he said. “Call on me.” I waited for the rest of the students to follow his lead, but they ignored him completely. It didn’t occur to me yet that his eagerness to answer didn’t just express his zeal for learning, but also social awkwardness, a kind of ignorance—either naïve or intentional—of the unwritten codes that governed the lives of the students of Josefina Aguilar. One of those rules was don’t talk in class on the first day.
I didn’t want to call on any of the other students, for fear of making them feel uncomfortable. I called on Ramón again. “Be courteous at all time to teachers and staff,” he said. I wrote down the second suggestion on the board as well. This wasn’t working as it had in the video. If no one else was going to talk, couldn’t Ramón at least form his rules in the negative, so I could have something to rephrase?
Ramón’s hand continued to be raised, but I pretended not to see it. I wanted to be sure not to let any one student dominate the classroom conversation.
“Thank you so much for your thoughts,” I said to Ramón, finally. “Can we hear from someone else now?”
Ramón let his hand drop down to his desk grudgingly. I tapped the chalk against the blackboard. When I couldn’t take the silence anymore, I blurted out, “What about no fighting?” Ramón nodded approvingly, but the rest of the class remained stoic. “Or better yet, what if I put respect each other’s actions? How does that sound?”
No one objected, or agreed, either. “Does that make you think of anything else?” I asked. I wiped sweat from my forehead with the sleeve of my hunter-green dress shirt, recently purchased at the Pharr Goodwill. “Nothing? How about, ‘no name-calling?’” My eyes met Ramón’s, who was shaking his head vigorously. I tried to resist the temptation to just look at him, since he was the only one whose gaze didn’t seem to go straight through me into the wall. “Can I put ‘respect other’s words?’ That way it won’t seem like these are things we’re not supposed to do. Instead, we can think about them as helpful reminders.”
I looked up at the clock. It was only 8:35. There were still six hours to fill before the end of the day.
I was an English major in college, and I dreamed of being a writer, even if all I’d eked out in a summer spent in my parents’ basement were a few convoluted paragraphs saturated in existential angst. Still, writing was the subject I was most excited about teaching. During my phone interview for the position, Mr. Villarreal had been excited as well, because at the end of the year the students were tested by the state on their ability to write a personal narrative. At the Wal-Mart in Edinburg, I’d bought black and white Mead composition notebooks for each student. After my failed attempt at rule-building, I walked around the horseshoe handing them out, trying not to show my worry that they wouldn’t like them. There had been so many notebooks to choose from, ones with neon colors and Dragonball-Z and My Little Pony. I’d picked the simplest ones because I wanted the students to be able to decorate them in a way that said something about who they were. But what if they thought I wasn’t excited to teach them, seeing Puritanical black-and-white gifts? At first, my fears seemed to be confirmed. They set the notebooks down on their desks and didn’t open them as I finished making my way around the room.
Finally, a student raised his hand. It was Ramón Garza, of course.
“Can we keep them?” he asked breathlessly. I nodded. “They’re free, sir? Really?”
His hands passed lightly over the cover. I studied the rest of the room. Several students waited with pencils poised over the blank space underneath the word name, waiting for my instructions.
“I’m giving them to you on one condition,” I said to Ramón. He let his hand drop off the notebook onto his lap. “Don’t you want to know what that condition is?’ I asked. He nodded skeptically. “The condition is that you write in them every morning. Do you think you can do that?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, recovering his previous enthusiasm.
“Later on, we’ll have time to decorate them however you like,” I said, looking out at the entire class. “But for now I want to get started writing. How many people have written a letter before?” No one looked at me. “How many people have gotten a letter before, in the mail?” Blank stares. Only later would I realize that some of the students’ parents couldn’t read or write; others lived in colonias with no sewage or running water, let alone regular mail service.
“That’s okay,” I said, walking to the board. I wrote the day’s date at the top in cursive: August 15, 2003. Then, underneath, Dear Mr. Walsh.
“Can you copy this down on the first page of your notebook?” The students dug into their backpacks for pencils and pens. “Now, I want you to write to me and introduce yourself. I’ll give you twenty minutes. All right?”
No one wrote, except Ramón Garza, who grinned at me as I walked past his desk and saw that he was already on page two. The rest of the students stared at their blank pages, shifting nervously in their seats. A general feeling of confusion filled the air.
Okay, I pep-talked myself, you can do this. I navigated from desk to desk, asking questions in a voice loud enough so that other students could overhear. What do you like to do? How many people are in your family? Tell me about them. Tell me as much as you can.
Two or three pencils started moving, trying out a few preliminary words. Then a few more followed suit. Once they broke through that initial barrier, I saw that several students filled up pages as effortlessly as breathing. But most of them toiled over every letter, gripping their pencils ferociously, squeezing the words out of them like the final dollop of toothpaste from the tube.
I circulated around the inside of the horseshoe, offering encouragement and seeing what they’d done so far. Everyone, I noticed, wrote in print. More than a few students composed in all capital letters, spacing three or four words out over the course of a line, or writing in towering script that filled up four lines per letter. Students spelled words phonetically, replacing “I” with “Ay,” or, more perplexingly, “Eye.” There were two or three students whose writing I was unable to decipher at all, seemingly just a series of unconnected letters, not separated by any spaces. As I circulated around the classroom, I smiled enthusiastically to conceal my shock. I was asking them to introduce themselves, and half of them could barely write a complete sentence.
I might have realized at that moment, on the very first day, that I was in way over my head at Josefina Aguilar. I was a first-year teacher. I spoke only limited Spanish. I didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin to help them. But I was either too brave or too ignorant to see that. Instead, I found the anxiety that had gripped my shoulders and my lungs all morning slowly begin to subside, replaced by a newfound sense of purpose. Writing was something that was important, and it was something I knew about. Who better than me to introduce them to its emancipative power?
In spite of the students’ difficulties, there was something peaceful about the sound of graphite working across mashed-up tree pulp. The concentration of each student pooled and cohered until we were surrounded by a small lake of it, each pencil a current in a fluid choreography of thought.
The aura of calm was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was repeated three times, a little louder than really seemed necessary. “Keep working,” I said, as I went to the door. His face was pressed against the window, his nose and cheeks flattened against the glass.
“Good morning,” I said. “Can I help you?”
He was a tall boy, bigger by a head than any of the other boys in the classroom. His face seemed older too, his features sharper and more defined. “Are you the sir?” he asked. His dark eyes met mine and did not let go, an invitation to a staring contest.
“Your name must be Eduardo Santos,” I said, since his was the only desk currently unoccupied.
“No it’s not, sir,” he said. The way he said it, the sir sounded like an insult to knighthood.
“Are you looking for Mr. Walsh’s class?”
“My name is Eddie.”
I met his glare with what I hoped was an inviting smile. “Perfect. Welcome to class, Eddie. I’m glad you made it. We’re just getting started. We’re writing letters to introduce ourselves.”
“I already did. I’m Eddie.”
The rest of the class had turned their eyes toward us. I noticed that the two girls on either side of Eddie’s empty desk, Gladys Gómez and Yesenia Solís, shifted their chairs slightly to give him more space. The students, who had hunched their backs over their notebooks, straightened back up.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s a lot more to know,” I said. I walked him to his desk. I picked up the name tent and folded it the other way, pulling out the Sharpie that had been tumbling around in my breast pocket. Eddie, I wrote. “There, now that’s your seat.”
“Does it belong to me, sir?” It took me a second to grasp what he was getting at.
“I guess it belongs to the school. Consider it on loan for a while.”
I handed Eddie his journal. “Just tell me everything about yourself you want me to know.”
“What if there are things you don’t want to know?”
I liked Eddie Santos from the start. I knew from that moment on that he would be a handful. But I liked that about him, even as I felt a vague sense of fear at the same time. Unlike his classmates, I thought, he had a healthy distrust of authority. He didn’t care what anybody else thought, or at least that’s what he wanted us to believe.
I left fifteen minutes at the end of the day to pass out the spelling books. Initially, I hadn’t been crazy about the idea of teaching spelling, my own least favorite subject in school. In the era of dictionary.com and spell-check, it seemed like an anachronism. But seeing the kinds of problems the students were having with their writing, I had to concede that the requirement probably made sense.
The students were completing a math pre-test, working silently at their desks. I walked over to the cabinet at the back of the room and opened the door, not really paying attention to what I was doing. Ever since the writing exercise, I felt emboldened. I knew I could do this. More than that, I knew I wanted to do this. I had to keep myself from daydreaming too much about what the coming weeks would bring, social studies projects and poetry and journals that had to be replaced because they contained too few pages.
I found the bright yellow spelling books on the top shelf. I reached my hand up to see if there was any way I could get them to slide down, but they were too high up. I looked around for something to stand on. All the desks were occupied, except mine, which was too big to drag over to the cabinet. Checking to make sure I wasn’t distracting the students, I rolled the swivel chair from behind my desk next to the cabinet. I stepped up on the seat and felt the wheels turn to adjust to my weight. Pulling down a stack of five spelling books, I got down from the chair. I walked to the open end of the horseshoe, quietly laying the books on the corners of students’ desks.
I repeated this process until there were only five more books left to distribute. Back up on the chair, I heard a click-click-click sound that seemed to originate from the back of the cabinet. Instinctively I turned and looked at Eddie, but he was sitting with his forehead on the desk. Ignoring the sound, I pulled the remaining books from the cabinet. I saw the rattlesnake coiled behind the last stack of books. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When I closed my eyes and re-opened them, it was still there.
I felt the books dropping from my hands, landing with a dull thud and scattering across the floor. Losing my balance, I jumped to the floor as the chair rolled across the back of the classroom. In response to the noise, the snake tumbled out of the cabinet, landing on the linoleum and squirting to the center of the classroom. Gladys Gómez was the first one to see it. She let out a shriek, which quickly echoed across the room. Students scooted away, desks, chairs and all. The metal tips of the desk legs screeched across the newly-waxed tile.
Everyone moved except the student nearest the snake. She sat at her desk, like a small island, in the center of the classroom. In the confusion, her name tent had fallen on the floor. The snake had left me separated from my seating chart. She remained silent as the snake flicked its tongue in and out at her, staring back at the snake. Later I would find out that her name was Letty Arévalo. She’d been diagnosed with autism by the school psychologist the previous year. She read at a first grade level and almost never spoke.
“Don’t move,” I said. Wasn’t it true that snakes didn’t strike if you remained perfectly motionless? “Everyone stay as still as you can.”
The click-click-click of its tail reverberated through the room. I felt extremely light-headed. I thought I might throw up. A snake in the classroom was not something I’d thought to prepare for, even in the worst case scenarios I was prone to imagining at night.
My first instinct was to look around for something to kill it with. I briefly entertained the thought of the heavy metal Swinger stapler on my desk, only a few yards away. But what if I missed? What if the force of the blow wasn’t enough to kill it and the snake decided to retaliate? I could scream for help. I could grab Letty and move her out of harm’s way. I could maneuver to the front of the room and press the red emergency button that would connect me to the office. This last option surely would have been the calm, rational, responsible thing to do, but some impulse seized me up. Instead of asking for help from the outside world, I headed toward Letty’s desk, putting myself halfway in between the snake and her frozen body.
It might have been a heroic move, even, had I not frozen up immediately also. Somewhere I’d heard that snakes only struck when coiled. Until that moment, the snake had remained more or less elongated across the white tile, as though sunning itself beneath the fluorescent lights. It chose the instant that I approached to slither into its deadly halo. I felt its beady eyes fixed on me. My knees began to buckle.
“Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move,” I repeated over and over like a mantra, more for my benefit than that of the students. Not that I needed to say it. My legs were putty. My heart beat through my shirt. I was hostage in the center of my own classroom, on the very first day of school.
That was the way they found us when Mr. Hernández walked into the room a few seconds later carrying a sharp-tipped shovel. A boy from the neighboring class had looked inside our room on his way to the bathroom, then run back to his teacher, who had buzzed the office.
The janitor strode deliberately to Letty’s desk, his movement almost supernaturally fast against the backdrop of our paralyzed suspension. He lifted the shovel high above his head. When it dropped, it made a clean break, rust brown blood oozing across the stainless tile. Without saying a word, Mr. Hernández set down the shovel and leaned over and picked up the two pieces, head and tail. The head was still writhing slightly in his hand. Later, I heard in the teacher’s lounge that he’d taken the snake in his pick-up and thrown the pieces out the window in a vacant lot a few miles from the school. The other teachers said it was to guard against the old adage that one snake attracts another.
After Mr. Hernández left, silence filled the room. I was afraid to speak, knowing how my voice would tremble like a radio station that refused to come in all the way.
“Is everyone okay, Mr. Walsh?” The voice belonged to the principal, Mr. Villarreal, who was stepping in from the doorway. His nasal voice bounced against the walls, decaying into a faint echo. He stopped next to Letty’s desk.
I surveyed the wreckage, the crush of chairs and desks tilted every which way, where only moments before perfect order and symmetry had reigned. “I think so,” I said.
He paused for a moment, then apparently was satisfied. “Is everything all right, mija?” he asked Letty. He stood stiffly beside her, unaccustomed to providing comfort. She nodded meekly, although her face had not begun to regain its color.
“Some excitement on the first day, boys and girls,” he said. I smiled, hoping that was the reaction he wished to illicit. “Everyone help Mr. Walsh get things back in order, okay? We’ve all seen snakes before. Let’s get back to work. ¿Está bien?”
Letty Arévalo waited until he’d left the classroom to burst into tears. She buried her face in the front of her white blouse.
“All right,” I said, letting out a deep breath. I realized that I wasn’t going to do much better at offering comfort. I put a hand tentatively on her shoulder. “No one’s hurt. Everything’s going to be okay.”
The students, more composed than I was, began to drag the desks back into the horseshoe I’d so carefully constructed. Ramón Garza volunteered to help pass out the textbooks that were all over the floor. I assigned a student to escort Letty, who looked on the verge of passing out, to the nurse’s office. I gave another student the bathroom pass to get paper towels. When she returned, I got down on my hands and knees and cleaned up the snake blood on the tile myself.
At last we were ready to begin again, the desks reset, the textbooks distributed, the students’ names inscribed in blue or black ink in the front inside covers, the condition marked as excellent. I looked up at the clock at the front of the room. There was barely a minute left to go in the day.
I looked out at the class. There was a hand raised in the back of the classroom. I swallowed.
“Yes, Eddie,” I said.
“That was cool, sir,” he responded, a smirk spreading across his face. “Is everyday going to be like this?”