The once muted classroom is now chaotic. The weak plaster walls are barely holding up against the assault of the students. Screams, squawks, and scuffles fill the small room to the brim, all of which is due to the absence of a single person. The teacher.
Yet, the lack of supervision is barely noticed amidst the flurry of action. The elementary students who are usually seated in isolated rows, now fill every crevice of space with their presence. Some perilously jump from one wobbly desk to another, their faces a mirage of competitive adrenaline, seeing who could make the riskiest leaps. Every so often, the gaggle of girls gathered on the floor squeal animatedly about the ‘jumpers’ interrupting their origami. Papers of pink, lime green, orange— any shade you could think of— surround the haphazard circle of girls. The confetti of colors clutters the room as if displaced by an explosion, the girls, of course, being the bomb. Oblivious to the debris they produced, the girls lean forward, elbows on the worn grey carpet, legs kicked out behind them, making a flower of limbs in the center of the room. Fully absorbed in their craft, the girls' faces contort into shapes more intricate than their origami.
The harsh white tube lights flicker on, then off, and then on again. A set of twins stand arguing beneath a series of switches mounted to the wall. One wants the lights on, and the other, off. Each, barely able to reach the switches, uses all their vigor to jump up and slam them. Faces red, they furrow their eyebrows and scrunch their noses, both from anger and the strain of jumping. Their disheveled hair resembles the leaves of a Southern Pine. With their hands on their hips and an occasional stomp of the foot, they relentlessly continue their verbal sparring.
Another group of children, maybe you could call them the opportunists, take full advantage of their uncensored access to the 'Jingle Box'. The box is made of cardboard painted pink, decorated with glitter and dry macaroni. Queues forgotten, the children grapple for the best instrument before their peers. One young boy is lucky enough to get his hands on the prized xylophone. He sets the shoebox-sized instrument on the teacher's desk over a small black book and some important looking papers that he couldn’t care less about. The neon metal bars contrast strongly against the haggard mud-colored table. Nonchalantly perched next to his apparatus, the boy looks pleased with himself for taking up this forbidden area. One leg dangles over the edge of the desk, while the other is neatly folded beneath him. With the confidence of a professional, he bangs the bars of the xylophone which resonates jarring notes through the entire room.
The other so-called musicians spare jealous glances in his direction while trying to busy themselves with their own, less precious, instruments. The boy alone creates a racket; joined by the rest of the orchestra, the children compose a cacophony. With every instrument in a different key, and every child marching to the beat of a different drum, the room blares with discordance
Also in the room are the troublemakers. They smirk mischievously at the mayhem around them. Inspired, they too spring into action. One of them, a spirited little girl, darts to the blackboard. She grabs a crumbling piece of blue chalk, jumps onto the nearest chair, and starts drawing on the walls. Her harsh scrubbing of the chalk, causes pale flecks of cyan to drift and then settle amongst her freckles. Below her chair crawls a lanky young boy who scours the room for his next victim. With little regard for his surroundings, he goes around disrupting anything he can, in any way he can. He hides the bassists' drumsticks, pulls unsuspecting people's hair, and boastfully pushes over desks.
Yet, even his tricks are less troublesome than the ongoing wrestling match between two students. While the cause of the fight remains unknown, the boys roll on the floor trying to gain the upper hand. Their shirts which used to abide by the dress code, white, pressed clean, and fully buttoned, are now punctured and creased. Their hair stretches in all different directions as if trying to get as far away from the brawl as possible. The knot-like scramble is being closely spectated. Rowdy children stand near the walls, jeering and applauding the two opponents. Though engrossed in the fight, they have to scuttle and scatter every so often to avoid being hit by a misaimed blow. But in no time, they once again gravitate into a restless cluster, riveted by the heat of the fight.
The room, along with everything in it, is in a state of pandemonium. Not a single inch of the typically monotonous classroom is untouched by the children's vibrant discord. The children continue amusing themselves, blissfully ignorant of their destructive nature and to the great magnitude of sound they are generating. Preoccupied, the children never see it coming— their eyes are frozen wide as the classroom door suddenly opens.
It’s silent for a long time as Ms. Arthasya processes the destruction in front of her. Her mouth slightly agape while she tries to wrangle her emotions; the anger and shock inspired by the scene in front of her battling with the guilt of being twenty minutes late. She had snuck in through the back gate of the school, hoping her tardiness went unnoticed and that the children had upheld the tradition of quiet reading time. But the seemingly permanent destruction to the classroom introduced the fear of another employee performance review.
She musters the courage to enter the tableau vivant that, to her, depicts the consequences of her failed teaching. There is no noticeable sign of anger on her face, just a formidable placidity much like the eye of a storm. Nothing moves or makes a sound except for the young teacher's slow footsteps through the aftermath of pandemonium. Her scuffed ballet flats weave carefully through the different huddles of children, with thirty pairs of eyes following her every move.
As she reaches her desk, tipping her nose down to accompany a stern look, the boy with the xylophone grabs the instrument and evacuates the crime scene. In his hurry to escape, he pulled the contents of the desk along with him, creating an avalanche of documents and desk toys. The short, but seemingly never-ending, burst of noise made the silence that resumed feel even quieter. The boy stares meekly down at the mess he made and shows traces of wanting to help gather the items but ultimately scuttles away into the safety of the audience.
Clinks of loose change are heard as Ms. Arthasya lets her ashen satchel drop on the table to free her hands to collect the papers. Before starting, she reaches up to tame her curly hair, which is usually in a sleek bun but frazzled due to the humid and hectic morning. A few sheets of paper in, she groans internally after noticing the little black notebook that had made her late. She had spent all morning looking for the notebook, filled with teaching notes and schedules, in her cramped apartment.
Twenty minutes later and after the collaborative effort of the class following her instructions, the room had returned to a somewhat normal state. On the cuffs of her thrifted tweed jacket, she noticed some blue stains she acquired from trying to scrub away the chalk on the walls. The graffiti remained vibrant and the carpet still bore scars of the brawl, but the children were settled at their desks and focused on their books to avoid further angering their teacher. Exhausted, at only 9:45 am, she falls into her chair and stares at the disheveled little black notebook, now nestled safely on her lap amidst the creases of her midi-skirt.
The notebook— the only legacy she received from the will of her late father, a gifted teacher who had also mastered single parenthood— only made her further question her abilities. Why was she here? As she mulled over her failures as a teacher, she flipped through the months of scribbled preparations for each of her classes. Every turn of the page brought with it intrusive nostalgia and the warm, earthy, smell that only books have. What was it all for? Barely making enough to get by, it was hard to stay motivated in a career without progress or support.
She had grown up hearing her father’s elaborate anecdotes about his students which made her admire the impact of teaching and molding young minds. After college, she started working at the same school where her father first began his career. In many ways, it made her feel more connected to him and like she had made him proud.
She had truly enjoyed teaching— seeing her students’ excitement in the morning, hearing the peculiar questions they asked, and watching them improve day after day. Parent-teacher conferences were a splendor of their own; a humbling experience to watch proud parents beam after hearing the child’s accomplishments. She cherished and preserved every picture, craft, and letter from her students.
But after her father’s passing, everything lost its luster. Waking up was a chore, getting on the bus was a chore, teaching was a chore. Maybe teaching wasn’t for her? Maybe it was the career choice of a silly girl trying to impress her father? Maybe she was trying to fill his shoes that were too big for her? She reached the last page of the notebook, still blank, which laid parallel to a long sleeve on the inside of the back cover.
She had never paid much attention to the built-in pocket for papers, but now noticed a white corner peeking over the edge that she hadn’t seen before. She curiously tugged the slip out of its hiding place. She nearly dropped the notebook, and the class turned to look at her when she let a gasp escape her mouth. Her eyes widened, scanning the slip frantically for further explanation, and her dark brows furrowed. She noticed the stares and quickly feigned composure to deter their attention.
Lowering her hands to obstruct the remaining inquisitive eyes, she scrutinized the slip she was holding. She could not believe that she held in her hands a cheque for $20,000! The cheque, adorned with her father's languid scrawl was issued to her. It was unbelievable! A miracle! An opportunity. After months of bad luck following her father’s passing, she could finally take time off— perhaps visit a peaceful winery in Europe? Or a spa retreat? Or use the time to find a different career path? Her mind ran wild with the possibilities ranging from anything to everything that existed beyond the classroom.
She could see from the front of the thin paper, indents and blue ink of heavy writing at the back. She flipped the cheque to see a note from her father in the memo lines, “Dear Prajna, I have given nothing to this world except my knowledge and more importantly, you. The two greatest gifts of all. Please take care of them. Love from your favorite student.”
Moved, her eyes welled with tears as the school bell rang. The students scrambled to head to their next class and escape the unusual tension of that morning. One young boy lingered behind, slowly testing the waters as he edged closer to her desk. With his hair still tousled from earlier antics, the boy sheepishly looked up at Prajna from under his fringe, “Ms. Arthasya,” he asks, “do you hate us now?”
Taken aback by the question, she curbed her tears and glanced at her father's note once again. A glowing smile crept onto her face as she realized exactly how she wanted to spend the money. She turned to look at her student and say, “Not at all. Teaching you is the greatest gift of all.”