The Kindergarten Classroom

Eliza Powers

        The rabbit is dead. The pencil stands straight up, stabbed through Bubbles’ stomach. There isn’t any blood.

        “This is how I found him,” says the kindergarten teacher, leg bouncing, frantic. “It’s eight o’clock by now, the children should be arriving.”

        Ms. Summers adjusts the elastic waistband of her skirt, which has ridden up her stomach. Counts to three. Tugs at the scar on her chin. Bubbles does not stir.

        “I’m not sure what to do.”

        Ms. Summers feels a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Ms. Winters has been working at The Elementary School for twenty years, has seen dozens of kindergarten class pets come and go.

        “The first Reassignment is hard,” she says. “But it’s to be expected. Each kindergarten class has at least one Major Transgression.”

        Ms. Summers looks down at Ms. Winters’ necklace, a thick brass chain embedded with an emerald stone. The Elementary School teachers are permitted to wear one colorful item a day, one comfort-thing for the children.

        “So it is, then,” Ms. Summers says softly, “a Major Transgression?”

        Ms. Winters responds by looking at the dead rabbit. Bubbles lies on his side, stiff and frozen. The pencil, with its partially scrubbed off eraser, taunts them.

        Ms. Summers tugs at the scar on her chin.

        “Should I cover… him?” asks Ms. Summers, careful not to admit that she allowed the children to give him a name.

        “Here,” says Ms. Winters, walking to the closet. She selects a folded grey linen and drapes the material over the rabbit’s cage. “I’ll take care of the animal. And I can get the Reassignment ready. It will have to be with pencils.”

        Ms. Summers watches Ms. Winters carefully fold the corners of the linen over the cage, trying not to stare at the deformity on the older woman’s left hand. The gap where her index finger should be.

        “Thank you,” Ms. Summers breathes.

        Ms. Winters gives a terse nod and leaves the Teacher’s Lounge with the cage. Ms. Summers stays in the room for thirty seconds longer, her hand on her chin, before exiting into the hallway.

        It will have to be with pencils.

        The classroom is silent when she re-enters. Ms. Summers shivers at the things she had to read about in her Teacher’s Examination textbook, chaotic images with too many colors. Disaster defined the old kindergarten classrooms—pee on the rugs! Snot on the walls! Screaming and whining and tantrums.

Without Pairs, the children have no anchors, her Teacher’s Examination textbook had read. They would bob around, letting the current push them to their individual desires, no buoy to keep them grounded.

        Ms. Summers pauses near the door, blinks against the morning sunlight slanting in from the large window on the wall opposite to her. The sun illuminates each individual dust mote, and she imagines swallowing the impurities every time she sucks in a breath. Ms. Summers switches to breathing through her nose.

        Seated at the round wooden tables, the children are hard at work. Ms. Summers’ heart swells with pride (a dangerous thing) as she realizes that the Pairs immediately began working on their Morning Notations without her even being in the classroom.

        Pair number seventeen—Duncan, who scrapes his knees often, and Jill, who cries every time he does—lean over their notebook. Jill holds the pencil clumsily in her right hand, fingers splayed out like a claw. Duncan points to something on the page, and Jill writes with big, messy movement.

        At the table by the window, Peter tugs on one of Dominique’s braids. She ignores him and continues writing. He tugs again. Dominique pulls out one of her barrettes—a shiny thing shaped like a dragonfly—and waves it in front of Peter. He stops tugging.

        Next to Peter and Dominique, Jack picks his nose while Isabella checks over their work carefully with her finger. The chair next to Mark is empty. Ms. Summers tugs on her chin in anxiety—but oh, Violet is kneeling on the ground, tying Mark’s shoe. Ms. Summers smiles fondly. He really should look into Velcro.

        Shame suddenly warms Ms. Summers’s ears. What would Ms. Winters think if she arrived to see Ms. Summers standing near the doorway, observing the children, right before a Reassignment? She must take action.

        Lillian raises her hand.

        “Yes?” says Ms. Summers, crouching in front of the curly-haired girl.

        “Reagan has to go poo-poo.”

        Ms. Summers looks at Reagan—whose grey uniform has a toothpaste stain above the left breast—leaning into Lillian’s side.

        “Please hurry back,” says Ms. Summers, excusing the Pair number four. “Make sure he wipes and washes his hands. With soap, for twenty seconds.”

        “Yes, Ms. Summers,” says Lillian, flashing her dimples.

        Ms. Summers tugs at the scar on her chin as she watches Lillian steer Reagan to the bathroom stall, holding hands. Her girls were good. They followed the rules.

        The first Reassignment is important, said the textbook, because it stops the following Major Transgressions from happening.

        Ms. Summers pushes her shoulders back and marches to The Bell, which she has never rung. As she lifts her arm, the bracelet on her arm makes her pause. A red-beaded, delicate piece of jewelry, given to her by her older sister when she was in the Infirmary for her chin. Her comfort-thing of the day.

        “That’s a lovely bracelet,” says Callan, who has paused in her Notation to admire Ms. Summers’ comfort-thing. Ms. Summers opens her mouth to reprimand the girl, but then shuts it. She can’t blame Callan. Of course she would notice the red; the rest of the classroom is a collage of blacks and muted greys.

        Ms. Summers picks up the silver mallet and taps the bell. The children pause their Notations and look up. The bell eventually grows quiet. The ringing in her ears does not soften.

Callan strokes Turner’s hair reassuringly. Amelia wipes her thumbs against Kenneth’s cheeks. Peter drops the butterfly clip he was holding and starts hopping up and down.

        “Shh, it’s okay,” says Dominique, placing her hands on Peter’s shoulders and coaxing him back into his chair.

The children know what the bell means.

        “Children, today is a very important day,” begins Ms. Summers. She clears her throat. Tugs on her chin. And then stands up, shoulders back. Confident.

        “Something terrible has happened to our friend Bubbles.”

Mark yanks on Violet’s hair, and she grabs the offending hand to hold it instead.

        “Tomorrow we will have a lesson on The Circle of Life. But today we must have our first Reassignment.”

        Lillian and Reagan, returning from the bathroom, pause standing near the doorway. Reagan’s zipper is unbuttoned. Ms. Summers looks at Lillian, and she bends over to zip it up.

        “Please sit in your Circle Positions on the rug, like we practiced.”

        Turner jumps up and down excitedly. The children have never been allowed to sit on the rug. Callan smiles at him, whispers “Come on!” and grabs his hand. He lets her lead him, still jumping.

        But Mark refuses to get up, crossing his arms over his chest and furrowing his eyebrows.

        “Come on, Mark!” urges Violet, her voice treacly. Mark grumbles and shakes his head.

        “We get to sit on the rug! Isn’t that so awesome?” Violet whips her head from Mark to Ms. Summers and then back to Mark.

        “Please,” she begs. Mark stays put.

        Violet positions her hair so that it drapes over the Pair number eight, a flimsy effort to hide his defiance from Ms. Summers. She whispers something else, and Mark slowly gets up.

        As the children take their seats in their Circle Positions, Ms. Summers trudges across the room to the silver tablet. She sees Ms. Winters in the doorway, watches her nod. Ms. Summers suddenly feels very, very tired. She doesn’t make much effort to hide the silver tablet that she removes from the Teacher’s Cubby, high enough that none of the children could ever reach it. At least half of the class is now quietly sitting on the rug.

        She moves her finger down the left column on the screen, time stamps neatly stacked on top of each other.

        Every morning, Ms. Summers takes her bathroom break from exactly 7:50-7:55 a.m., returning to the classroom with enough time to greet the children when they arrive at 8 a.m. The children are not allowed in the classroom before that time.

Something solid rolls uncomfortably down Ms. Summers’ throat. She presses play and watches the video, watches the small, thin-wristed kindergartener plunge a pencil into the rabbit’s side.

        The children are now all in their Circle Positions, waiting. Ms. Summers watches, on the silver tablet, the pixelated Bubbles killer exits the classroom and returns seven minutes later with his partner, who is wearing dragonfly hair clips.

        Peter and Dominique.

        “It’s time,” Ms. Winters says, snapping Ms. Summers out of her reverie.

        Ms. Summers takes her spot in the last remaining opening of the circle. She tugs her chin, looks at Ms. Winters for guidance.

        Ms. Winters dumps out a box of freshly sharpened pencils in the center of the circle. The children are momentarily distracted, looking at the pile of miniature weapons. Ms. Winters raises her chin at Ms. Summers. Ms. Summers remains silent.

        “Can someone demonstrate how Bubbles was hurt?” Ms. Winters asks.

        Callan raises her hand and bounces up and down.

        “Like this,” Callan says, and slams her fist against the ground. “With a pencil.”

        “Very good, Callan. Can everyone practice?”

        Ms. Summers flinches delicately as every sharpened pencil hits the carpet.

        “Whose fault was it?” asks Ms. Winters.

        Ms. Summers looks at Peter, and is surprised at what she sees. She doesn’t know what she was expecting—guilt, maybe; nervousness; remorse? Nothing. He is smiling, slamming the pencil in the ground, bubbling with the joy of play. She wonders if he even remembers his Major Transgression.

        Without the Pairs, the textbook read, the boys would have no guidance. They can’t help themselves.

        Whose fault was it?” repeats Ms. Winters.

        Ms. Summers looks at the single dragonfly clip in Peter’s partner’s hair, glittering with sunlight.  She looks at the stump on Ms. Winter’s left hand where her finger should be. She tugs on the scar on her chin.

        And then she points her finger at Dominique.

        “No,” says the little girl. “I promise I was watching him.” The kindergarteners look her up and down. Lillian twirls the pencil in her hand.

        “No,” says Dominique. But she can’t say anymore. Callan stabs her thigh. The pencil goes in just deep enough to stand up on its own. Ms. Winters has spent a long time carefully sharpening them. She is committed to the Pairs. Ms. Winters looks at Callan with admiration while the children hover around Dominique, pencils raised. Dominique looks at Ms. Summers as she screams.

        This time, there is blood.