Teacher’s Pet

Sunlight streamed through the westward windows at a slant, glinting off the twenty desks arranged in standard grid formation. That sunlight seemed almost heavenly to Jackie Potter as she sat at her desk on the first day of first grade.

Up front, at the great chalkboard running the length of the entire wall, Miss Radish stood, erasing whatever had been written there in great left-right swathes. Jackie did not know what had been written there because she had not been paying attention. It had been a long day and her thoughts had begun to drift from what she was supposed to be learning in school.

Miss Radish finished, picked up another eraser from the metal ledge, and began banging the two together, the padded thudding reminiscent of Jackie’s mother fluffing pillows in that aggressive manner she had. The woman was momentarily obscured in a large billowy cloud of chalk dust. She began to speak, her voice high and insectile. Jackie immediately tuned her out.

She suddenly realized she had to pee, and began squirming in her seat. She would have raised her hand and asked to use the little ladies’ room, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Jackie wasn’t sure it would be okay to ask to use the can (as her father called it). If it had been Miss Rogers, her kindly kindergarten teacher from the previous year, there would have been no question, but Miss Radish had a mean-looking pinched face, kind of like a shriveled apple. So Jackie decided not to raise her hand and ask to use the bathroom; she would wait and see what developed.

When she glanced to her right toward the window for a needed glimpse of a world outside the classroom, she spotted a skinny girl, rather undersized for her age, sitting across the narrow aisle. The girl had brown hair in pigtails and was also looking toward the window. Sunlight slanted downward, beaming through the school windows from beyond grassy meadows and distant trees, the shadows of which, in the rich honeyed light of mid-afternoon, stretched lengthening fingers across the lawn, as if reaching out to pull her and the other children back into the fields to play, to perhaps delay the inevitable growing up the school itself represented.

As the girl leaned toward the window, trying to get a better look at whatever it was that had grabbed her attention, the droning voice at the head of the classroom ceased, causing the hairs on the back of Jackie’s neck to bristle in warning. Something big was about to happen, something maybe not so good for the girl sitting beside the window.

“Miss Bodeman,” the old woman bellowed. “Just what is it you find so interesting outside the classroom window?”

The girl continued staring as if she had not heard a thing.

The children held their collective breath, some studying the girl, some half-turning in their seats to get a better look, the small room filling with the furtive rustling of fabric. They became united, staring with amazement, more than a few had their eyebrows raised, but all fearing for the girl in their midst who had defied adult authority on the very first day.

And then a new sound, and Jackie’s heart bounded and leaped within her chest. Having forgotten her urge to pee, she had become frozen in petrified horror, for this fresh sound, the familiar whip-whip of pants in scissoring motion, approached down the aisle like a monster in a nightmare. It was Miss Radish and she was heading Jackie’s way, drawing closer with every stride.

Only it wasn’t just the teacher approaching that terrified Jackie. There had been something else. Inside the iron belly of the neighboring girl’s desk something moved. The desk jerked more than a little, no one besides Jackie apparently saw, everyone else being preoccupied with the drama unfolding between teacher and unlucky student. In a gap between lid and steel belly no thicker than the width of a number two pencil, Jackie spotted two pinpoints of light. She knew from watching her favorite kitty Paw Paw that they must be an animal’s eyes, eyes that betrayed an animal’s intelligence and inner light. But what could be small enough to fit in one of these school desks and not create more of a stir?

The teacher drew nearer, whip whip went her trousers, until she reached Ellen’s secret-hiding desk and blocked it with her birdlike frame. This action brought Jackie forcefully back into the hard reality of that small classroom and its four oppressive walls.

“Miss Bodeman,” Miss Radish squawked, flapping her arms anxiously, “why do you keep ignoring me? What is so impressive out there that you keep ignoring me!

Jackie wasn’t sure why, but she hated what those words implied. They reached for something deep within, and twisted, like two hands wringing a wet towel. So far she had neither seen nor heard anything that day in school that impressed her half so much as the apple trees in her backyard, their limbs sticking out like the spokes of mighty wheels and covering the entire yard in awesome layers of crisscrossing shadow. Or when the branches whispered and creaked in the wind and spoke of ancient truths. For that matter, the tree house her dad built out of wooden planks was a heck of a lot more interesting than this crummy school. And still the crosshatch design of Miss Radish’s hideous pantsuit obscured her vision and tried to rewrite the truths of her life with counterfeit overlaid “truths”. She longed to see eyes peeking from the desk again, their interior light as bright as Paw Paw’s. Those eyes had been sizing her up, she was absolutely sure of it now, and she wanted to find out why.

“Huh? Whazzit?” a child’s voice slurred, fuzzy about the edges. Miss Radish stared at the child as if she had used foul language. She had a wrinkly witchy face and scraggly iron gray hair the color of the Brillo pads Jackie’s mom kept under the sink for the dirty pans. Abruptly Jackie had an insight. Her teacher, in fact, might very well be the boogeyman, not in disguise so much as living outside its usual habitat: the bedroom closet or the space beneath the bed.

The horrid voice continued, mocking the small child’s puzzled tone. “Whazzit, Ellen Bodeman?” Miss Radish’s temper exploded. “You are in my classroom to be taught!” The old woman lifted a wrinkled hand that looked like a chicken claw and pointed behind her at the blackboard, her boogeyman name written in deceptively pretty cursive along the left hand side. “I was discussing . . . “

Miss Radish’s voice trailed off in open disbelief. The girl had gone back to staring at the window. While Jackie admired such chutzpah, ignoring the mean old bat standing not two feet away, she guessed such flouting of authority would surely lead to punishment, and with Miss Radish it most certainly would not be a “slap on the wrist”.

“Up front, Miss Bodeman,” Miss Radish said, eyes aflame. “To the chalkboard.”

Ellen’s hurt features displayed shock while the moon-like faces of her classmates all betrayed, in varying degrees, the same shock mixed with honest relief that they had not been singled out as Ellen had, the child about to be marching up the aisle to be given some terrible punishment. A palpable silence filled the room as everyone waited to see what was going to happen next.

“You will stand in that corner, Miss Bodeman,” bellowed Miss Radish, lifting her withered claw and pointing. “Until I tell you otherwise.”

“But Miss Radish,” came the shaky yet defiant voice of Jackie’s neighbor from across the aisle, “what was I doing wrong?”

Jackie studied the girl now sitting bolt upright at her desk. Though a trifle small for her age, she did not back down from Miss Radish’s blazing eyes glaring down at her, an unforgiving Old Testament god.

”You weren’t paying attention. Move.”

“But Miss Radish . . . “

“NOW,” the teacher snapped. “You will stand up front and face the class, Miss Bodeman.”

Shakily, the girl got up and stepped away from her desk. Under the watchful eyes of Miss Radish she started forward, the teacher following close behind. Reaching the chalkboard she did as she was told, making her way to the corner and turning to face the class. She wore a truculent expression on her small face.

Jackie wanted like the dickens to help, but what could she possibly do? Granted there were only so many corners in the room and a whole lot more students. The old crone could not very well punish every single one of them, but Jackie was in no way confident enough to start a general rebellion. Yet she may have stood up just the same if the thing inside Ellen’s desk had not picked that exact moment to once again make its presence known. A very noticeable clunk filled the air, and the desk wobbled back and forth.

“The desk!” a boy seated behind Ellen’s recently vacated seat squealed in a clear falsetto. “There’s a monster in the desk!” Sunlight streamed past the boy as Jackie spun in her seat to watch.

“Oh, I doubt that very much, Mr. Emblem.” Miss Radish had once again turned to face the class, giving the boy a stern look. She came around to the head of Jackie’s aisle.

“If I come down there and I don’t find any monster I am going to be very upset,” she said, and Jackie wanted to glare at her but ended up doing no such thing. Instead, she glared at the boy, Mr. Emblem, and he spotted her. His cheeks burned red and he gave her a sheepish, half-apologetic look before returning his attention to the untenanted desk.

“Well, Mr. Emblem?” Miss Radish asked in a danger-tinged voice, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Something’s in there!” the boy wailed, jabbing a shaking finger at the empty desk.

From her corner Ellen spoke with decided authority. “You’d better not open it.”

Having already started down the aisle Miss Radish paused, clearly displeased by this unruly bunch of youngsters, and cast an angry look back at Ellen. Ellen met her gaze and stood her ground.

“You might lose a hand, Miss Radish.”

“Don’t you think you’re in enough trouble already, young lady?” Miss Radish stared at Ellen, daring her to speak, to say another word. “Making threats? Would you like it if I sent you down to the principal’s office and called your parents?”

The little girl’s resolve broke slightly, her cheeks reddening like stop lights. She did not reply to this threat, only shrugged her shoulders in an okay, go ahead, but don’t say I didn’t warn you gesture.

Jackie shifted her attention from this classroom drama back to the desk across the aisle. Out of the corner of her eye it shuddered yet again. The little boy went pale, eyes widening like saucers. He pushed himself as far back in his seat as he could go.

Miss Radish resumed her militant march down the aisle, pants whip-whipping as she moved. Once again the plaid pantsuit came to obstruct Jackie’s view.

“Excuse me, Mr. Emblem,” the teacher said, glancing at the boy with disapproval, and he retreated even further, looking as if he wanted to crawl right inside of his own desk and disappear. The old woman then lifted the lid of Ellen’s desk. It creaked with foreboding, like the front gate of a castle in a horror movie. The little boy, lips in a comical “O”, appeared terrified, his face as white as paper. A breathless expectancy hung in the air, and the children, simultaneously, leaned closer towards Ellen’s desk and the thing that just might be—none of the children were old enough to quite disbelieve—waiting inside.

Miss Radish smiled a rictus grin, the first time Jackie had seen anything but a scowl on her face all day. She reached inside the desk and brought out a plastic tyrannosaurus rex. It was purple and about six inches tall. She lifted it up so the entire class could see it.

“You better be careful,” Ellen piped from her corner. “He doesn’t like being handled by anyone ‘cept me!”

Ignoring this latest outburst, Miss Radish slammed the lid down with a pronounced crash. This jolted awake the mass of children who had fallen into a sort of mesmerized doze, many of them wearing looks of surprise mixed with a certain disappointment, a feeling Jackie could not help sharing. Her disappointment heightened as Miss Radish poked and prodded the dinosaur and tried to provoke it into reacting, an obvious performance for the waiting children. Jackie kept hoping it would do something, but it remained plastic and immobile as the teacher carried it in one hand to the head of class, its plastic hide reflecting ambient light. Any inherent magic in the moment dissipated as Miss Radish’s reality regained ascendance.

Staring at the plastic toy as the teacher returned to her desk even as the children about her lost interest, as children will when nothing remains to grab the attention, Jackie balled her hands into fists and stared at the purple dinosaur. Then she switched her attention back to the vacant desk, and repeated to herself she had not imagined those bright eyes, that what she had seen had not been the late afternoon sun reflecting off of a toy’s shiny hide.

Jackie looked from the empty desk back to Ellen, still standing in the right-hand corner. The girl wore the same look of disappointment Jackie felt, even as the dinosaur remained plastic and immobile in Miss Radish’s hand. The teacher stood beside her desk as if it gave her power, glaring at the plastic dinosaur before shifting her attention and glaring at the children instead.

“This brings up an important point I had been meaning to discuss earlier.” She lifted the plastic dinosaur as if it were an exhibit in a court case. “No toys are to be brought into this classroom. Please leave them at home. They cause needless distractions to minds already prone to distraction. Since this is your first day I will excuse anyone who has brought one, provided they keep it in their book bag or inside their desk.” Her features hardened and she turned toward the girl in the corner. “Except for Miss Bodeman, who has already been such a naughty girl. I think she needs a sterner punishment, and a stronger lesson.” She stared at the little girl in the corner, daring her to respond.

Ellen’s face reddened, but she refused to engage; her lips remained steadfastly pressed together.

With an obvious air of victory, Miss Radish, now holding the tyrannosaur by thumb and forefinger, as if she hated even touching it, walked briskly over to the garbage can and held the dinosaur above it, hand poised. “This is what happens to disobedient children in my classroom!”

She unceremoniously dropped the dinosaur into the trash. It clattered against the side and fell silent, as silent as a plastic toy.

Jackie stared in horror. She didn’t! She couldn’t! Absolute silence, punctuated only by the ticking of the clock, filled the room. Up front, Ellen was clearly fighting herself not to speak. As Jackie watched, an errant tear rolled down one cheek and disappeared. Ellen’s hands clenched into fists and unclenched.

“Is there anything you wished to say, Miss Bodeman?” The teacher grinned, showing two rows of alligator teeth, and that was when Jackie knew for sure the terrible truth. The old bat really was the boogeyman! At that exact moment something in the teacher’s eyes caught sunlight from the windows and they glittered hard like jewels. Jackie felt cold all over, goose pimples forming along both arms.

“I’ve gotta pee!” Ellen screamed, and Jackie spotted the anger sparking her eyes to fire even from the back of the room, her face shiny with tears. “I’ve got to go!”

Miss Radish, still hovering over the garbage can like a gravedigger at the side of a grave, narrowed her eyes and gave the little girl a reptilian smile. “You may go, Miss Bodeman, if you apologize for wasting my and your classmates’ time.”

“If I do, can I have Horace back?”

Miss Radish’s smile widened. “Your toy? No, you cannot.”

Ellen’s face clouded over. “I did not waste anybody’s time. And you shouldn’t have done that to Horace; he gets crabby if he’s bothered.” And then, strangely, she smiled. It was a sweet little girl smile, only her words were hardly little girlish, speaking them in a sing-songy voice. “You’ll be sorry!”

Miss Radish’s smile died. “Pardon me, Miss Bodeman?” In her voice was something terrifying, something that told every student in the room that their teacher was not to be trifled with. She took an intimidating step away from the trashcan toward Ellen.

Ellen’s smile faltered under that baleful gaze, her confidence withering. “Uh, nothing, Miss Radish. But I really have to pee!”

The grin resurfaced on the teacher’s wrinkly face. “I will let you go if you apologize!”

Ellen’s face contorted, looking as if she had bitten into something sour, but then the winsome smile reappeared. “Okay, Miss Radish. I apologize. I am sorry for wasting everybody’s time.”

Miss Radish narrowed her eyes, perhaps sensing a trap, but she said: “Fine. You may go, but hurry back.” Ellen rushed toward the classroom door. “But no running, Miss Bodeman.” The little girl slowed, finishing her walk to the door like an automaton, walking in stiff-legged slow-motion.

Miss Radish went to the blackboard and picked up chalk from the ledge. She began to write on the board, hitting it with a loud crack.

Jackie, who had been absorbed in thought, yelped at the abrupt noise.

The sound of chalk moving across the blackboard stopped and a voice cut through the afternoon sunlight like the whine of an electric razor. “Yes? Who was that?”

Jackie’s face burned. She felt, rather than saw, children turning towards her, unwittingly giving her away. Miss Radish’s eyes zeroed in on her, pinning her to her seat like a terrified butterfly. “Miss Potter, you had something to say?” The teacher stood at the head of the class, imposing and implacable.

Jackie spoke the first thing that popped into her head. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she squeaked. Her bladder felt as if it were about to explode.

Miss Radish’s features twisted with displeasure. “You too?” she cried, exasperated. “You’ll have to wait until Miss Bodeman returns.” Miss Radish glanced at the clock above her desk and scowled as if smelling something foul. “Where is that child? She’s been gone . . . “

“But I really have to goooo . . . “ whined Jackie, pushing her voice to the edge of tears, all the while knowing she’d be teased mercilessly for the performance later. “I can’t wait!” She pressed her knees together for effect even though they were out of sight.

Children around her began to giggle, but at a single withering glance from Miss Radish the giggles died, like flowers in an unexpected frost.

Miss Radish first looked at the institutional clock on the wall, then the closed door that led to eventual freedom, and lastly upon the little girl who had dared make such an unreasonable request.

“Please?” Jackie wailed, recalling what her father said about her constant bathroom breaks and using this observation as much needed inspiration. “I’ve got a little tank!” She squirmed in place and kicked the desk in front of her. Its resident, a young boy with red hair and freckles, turned to give her a mean look.

“Fine,” Miss Radish snapped, throwing up her hands. “Just be quick about it. And no loitering in the halls.”

Before the teacher could think twice and retract her uncharacteristic permission, the little girl was up and hurrying for the door as fast as she dared, feigning only a little her need to urinate.

Jackie had just about made it to the door, was one row of desks away, when Miss Radish’s harsh squawk froze her in her tracks like a drill sergeant at base camp.

“Oh, and Miss Potter?”

Jackie turned to face her with a pounding heart. She could almost reach out and touch the door! She felt all of the children’s eyes upon her as she said, voice quaking, “Yes, ma’am?”

“If you happen to run into your tardy classmate, will you please tell her to finish her business and hurry her little bottom up?” The boogeyman’s eyes, the slate color of an arrowhead her father had shown her once, burrowed deep into Jackie’s soul. But she dare not drop her gaze.

“I will. I promise, Miss Radish,” she said, speaking in a small voice.

Miss Radish, perhaps suspecting something, regarded her with obvious suspicion for several seconds, making Jackie feel about two inches tall, until the woman gave a brisk nod. “Very well then, Miss Potter. You may go.” After another round of seconds where the two silently squared off across the classroom, Miss Radish turned toward the chalkboard and the writing upon it. Jackie was free. At last! She walked to the door, blood pounding so loudly in her ears she feared everyone nearby would hear it. Then she was at the door, her hand on the knob. She was turning it and pulling on it and was through it and into the outer hallway.

The door slammed shut behind her, leaving her alone in the vast tiled hall outside, the afternoon sun spilling in and painting the walls with liquid gold. Somewhere a teacher droned on behind a door—it was the evil Miss Radish—and outside the classroom, through that door, the woman’s voice really did sound as though it were coming from an insect. Jackie thought about Horace the dinosaur and was sad, and then she started down the hallway.

She was still thinking along these lines when Ellen emerged from the bathroom ahead, rounding the corner and nearly running into Jackie. They paused inches from the other, sizing each other up.

“Hi,” Jackie said with tentative frankness. “I’m Jackie.”

Ellen Bodeman surveyed the slightly taller girl before her, taking her measure, wondering—maybe—if this strange girl could be trusted. Jackie had an idea Ellen might assume she had been sent to find her and tattle on her.

“I saw your desk move.”

Ellen appeared unimpressed. “Oh, really?”

“Oh, yes. And I saw eyes looking out.”

After a moment Ellen’s face exploded into a grin, a lovely gap-toothed grin without guile. “Call me Ellie,” Ellen Bodeman chirped, her voice overflowing with that grin. “That was Horace you saw.” Her hand shot out. “Usually he lets no one see him but me.”

Jackie took the offered hand and squeezed. Ellie squeezed back. Jackie flashed a wide smile, hoping she did not appear too enthusiastic.

It was nighttime. Jackie and Ellie stood before a gate in front of a small one story house, white with geraniums on a tidy porch, the yard surrounded by a white picket fence. It was a warm evening and neither of them wore jackets.

Ellie looked up and down the street, there was no one in sight, and pushed at the wooden gate. It did not budge. She peered over the top, reached over, and fiddled with the simple lock.

The two crept into the yard, Jackie closing the gate behind them.

“C’mon,” Ellie said in a hoarse whisper, ducking slightly and circling the house toward the back. Jackie followed, more than a little curious.

“What are we doing here?” she asked quietly. “If we get caught, we’ll be in big trouble.”

“Oh, I doubt that.” Speaking with confidence, Ellie then pointed at a doghouse that had appeared before them. “Watch, you’ll see.”

“Ooh,” Jackie gasped, suddenly afraid. “A dog!”

There was a bump and an audible scrape, the sound of a scuffle, and the doghouse shook before them, a series of barks, a terrified yelp, and then silence. Jackie cast a quick look at the house, its windows lit with warmth and the drapes pulled shut, a canvas doggy door in the back door. There was no sign of movement within. Somehow she had expected the boogeyman’s home to be darker, more sinister. This place was so ordinary. Well, the boogeyman was an expert at camouflage and hiding in plain sight, she supposed.

The two girls stared at the doghouse, Jackie ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. After a few seconds a tiny tyrannosaur emerged, licking its chops.

“Huh?” Jackie cried out. “What’s he doing here?”

“Attaboy Horace,” Ellie said, chuckling with obvious approval.

Horace came up to them, rubbed affectionately against Jackie’s bare leg and moved onto Ellie, who absently patted his flat-topped head. Jackie stared at the dinosaur, excited to see him, but brimming over with questions.

The T. rex opened his mouth, belched, and a dog collar flew out, landing at Ellie’s feet, a metallic badge in the shape of a bone with the name Chester inscribed there.

The girls exchanged looks.

“But how . . . “ began Jackie.

“Oh, he’s eaten animals much larger than that.” Ellie shrugged matter-of-factly. “I don’t know where he puts it all.”

“My dad would say he’s got a hollow leg.”

Ellie grinned. “More like two hollow legs.”

Jackie and Ellie watched with real interest as Horace left them and approached the house of their first grade teacher. He crept up the back stairs, using his tiny arms and muscled legs to propel himself up and over each step, before slipping through the doggy door and out of sight. It fluttered like a tent flap in a light breeze and was still.

Ellie’s grin widened. “I told Miss Radish she’d be sorry.”

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