When I was a little girl I liked to draw, and since I wasn’t pretty or particularly good at anything else, my mother decided that I should be an artist. She wasn’t an artist, and she didn’t know any artists, but she had a vision of me in a crowded art gallery surrounded by throngs of admirers all begging me to explain what the hell my pictures meant. When I was a little girl, I had a vision of me disappearing forever in a radiant ball of light. It’s hard to say which one of us was more disappointed.
Now I teach art at a middle school in Alpharetta, Georgia because I never lived up to my childhood potential as an artist. Everyone else must be living up to their childhood potential because art teachers are an endangered species. Last week, the father of one of my little Rembrandts said he thought they should take away my salary and put it toward teaching something useful like algebra or chemistry, so I told him that someday he and I and his pug-faced son would be dead in the ground, and none of the things we learned in school would exactly be useful then, would they?
I have been reprimanded three times this year for incidents such as reminding a parent of the certainty of death. I have also been reprimanded twice for swearing at or in the vicinity of a parent. Three times I have taken a student’s name in vain. It is almost the end of the school year, and there is no possible future in which I am not going to be fired.
I almost quit last summer when I got married, but teaching art is the only real work I am qualified to do, and I am afraid of being a quitter. If I am fired, however, I will simply be a failure. Four years of undergraduate studio work and a Master of Fine Arts. I teach yawning children which colors make brown and which colors also make brown. I am already a failure. It is nothing to be afraid of.
My mother describes me as “unmotivated.”
One summer when I was sixteen, I went with the art club to the Savannah College of Art and Design to be in an exhibition for promising high school students. Nine girls from my school with nominal supervision at a rundown motel on the Georgia coast. We spent the weekend getting heat stroked and gawking at workshops full of wet nudes and lopsided pottery. The college students were all so talented and confident, but more than anything else they were gorgeous. Beautiful people were supposed to be vapid and dead inside because they didn’t have to suffer like normal people. It wasn’t fair. Later, I remember picking a fight with the lady who ran the motel. Then we all had to spend the night sleeping in our cars, and in the morning we threw up rum and blue Kool-Aid onto the sizzling asphalt. We never made it to the exhibition, but my picture won anyway. Best self-portrait.
So I don’t know what “motivation” has to do with anything.
My mother has been calling me all morning, but I am ignoring her because I am at work and I am a professional. Here is how a professional teaches art. First, it is important to be as unprepared as possible. Preparation is the enemy of danger, and if there is no danger in your life boredom will burn the heart right out of you.
Next, tell the children you are splitting them into small groups for a special exercise. This will create in them the false impression that you have planned a special exercise.
Finally, make yourself vulnerable to inspiration. Look around you: the ungraded mound of two-month-old sketches crowding your desk; the seemingly dead wasp on the windowsill that you refuse to go near; your shoes. Yes. Tell each member of the class to take off one shoe and put them all in a pile in the middle of their tables. That is what they will draw.
While the students are shuffling around, I seat Dinah Williams, the popular girl, next to nerdling Trenton Jarret because there is something going on between them, and today is the day I am going to get to the bottom of it.
I have already figured out that Trenton is in love with Dinah. Everyone is in love with Dinah. I would trade souls with Dinah. But what I suspect is happening is more complicated. See how Trenton pretends Dinah is not there, even though she has inched her way toward him and is now clearly violating his personal airspace. After a few moments of being ignored, Dinah asks him if he wants to see how she crosshatches. “It’s real easy,” she says. She bounces out of her seat and glides behind him. She shows him what she means, puts her hand over his to guide the pencil. She is at least a head and a half taller than he is. It must be a joke, he is thinking, a prank. He is so still and pale. The other kids are waiting for him to believe that it is real so that they can laugh at him, he thinks. Maybe he is right. But I want to see.
One of their tablemates looks up for a moment and Trenton jerks his hand away. Dinah’s little nose wrinkles as she stops demonstrating. Someday she will have whatever she wants, in whatever quantity she wants it, but for now she sits and sulks, unaccustomed as she ever will be to rejection. Trenton doesn’t even thank her for showing him how to crosshatch.
When I was their age, or maybe older, I liked a boy. I was a weirdo with a bumpy nose. I used to sit where I could see him in every class. This went on for years. Then one night at a high school party he kissed me behind a tree. It drizzled all down my body like drips of warm water. I told him he tasted like cigarettes and made a friend drive me home. I am not in the mood to remember now.
Without a word, I leave the classroom and walk out to the cold morning smell of the parking lot. My car is already speckled with fresh bird shit. I call David, my husband. It is technically verboten to leave the children unattended, but you aren’t technically supposed to let them see you cry, either.
The sun is still just beneath the tree line, but David has been at work for at least three hours, long gone by the time I rushed half-showered to school. David is a water conservation engineer for the City of Atlanta. There is never enough water, but David is a problem solver and likes hopeless causes. I tell him about the two children but he can’t quite grasp the complexities of the situation. I believe based on the stories he tells about his youth that I am only the second woman he has ever slept with, but I have never questioned him on this point directly.
I tell David that the school year is almost over and I still haven’t been asked to renew my contract. I am going to be fired. I make this same prediction every year, but so far it has refused to come true. It is different this year, I tell him. David is equipped with finely tuned crisis-measuring devices and this information barely registers. “We’ll get by, Justine,” he says. “There are plenty of other schools.” The thought of getting a new job at a new school makes my head itch.
If I am fired my coworkers will pity me. I don’t know most of their names. David will be positive and supportive. My mother will be disappointed. She thinks I can do better, but I can’t.
I will not tell my brother.
David says what he thinks I want to hear. He says, “It’s not the end of the world,” which is exactly the opposite of what I want to hear. I have been Married to David for ten months. We dated for maybe three years before that. I married him because he is positive and supportive.
That isn’t true. I married him because I was thirty-three and nobody wants to be alone when the music stops.
Instead of taking David’s advice, I drive down the street to a convenience store overlooking a wooded ravine, and I sit in the car and try to think. Squirrels crash around in the trees below me. I do not like coffee or tea or any other hot drinks, but if I pour a packet of gas station cocoa mix into a Coke there is a fifteen-minute flood of caffeine and sugar during which it is possible for me to have a single coherent thought. I know that my teeth will be rotted out of my face by the time I am forty, but I don’t need teeth. I need to think.
The hardest part of working with children is that you can already see how their lives are going to turn out, the time they’ll continue to waste worrying about each other’s hateful opinions, the personality flaws that will only grow more annoying to more romantic partners, the shortcomings that keep getting shorter until their old dreams dangle quite out of their reach, and there is nothing, nothing you can say or do to stop it. Life has led me to this poisonously boring corner just like miserable little Trenton will be led to his, and not even a genuine miracle like Dinah Williams flirting with him in middle school art class can convince him he deserves better.
I drive back to school where the children have finished drawing their shoe piles and are waiting out the clock. I collect their drawings and they leave. New students arrive. I have already made this next class draw their shoes. I am out of ideas.
My mother calls again at fifth period. I answer this time because I am not a professional and I am not going to pretend that I am.
It’s about my brother, she says.
My brother, Dodd, is in the Air Force, so I don’t get to see him very much. He is ten years older than I am, and works all over the world. I am not allowed to know exactly what he does. It is against the law for him to tell me. I worry because America is currently at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, and, since it is already past noon today, probably two or three other countries. But Dodd says he is too important to be sent to war. He is a piece of equipment that is too expensive to replace, he says. The greatest dangers he faces are tinnitus and getting his tunnels carpalled, he says.
My mother tells me that Dodd was blown up in an explosion in Iraq along with six other servicemen and women, and that he’s been dead for many days, and they are only now telling the families of the dead.
“It’s a mistake,” I say. “Dodd doesn’t go to war. He tells me all the time. Who did you talk to? No, tell me their name.”
“Honey,” she says. “Stop.” She does not on normal days call me honey. I can hear in her voice that she has been crying but has composed herself for this phone call. Once I heard a beautiful woman compliment my mother on her composure.
I tell my mother not to call me at work anymore.
After seventh period, Principal Zoetewey calls me into her office. I have been expecting this. You are just too unreliable, Justine, there have been too many complaints. We will not be able to ask you back for the 2006-2007 school year.
I wonder if I should tell her that I just found out my brother was blown up, but it is probably not true. It happens all the time, people are reported dead and it turns out somebody wrote down the wrong name. My brother will call from a distant airport or embassy to explain it was some other Dodd Hall who got his guts spread out all over a desert road at night, and then I will look like a liar for inventing a family tragedy for personal gain. It sounds like something I would do.
When I go home, I am resolved to say nothing about getting fired and nothing about my brother. In the driveway, I try to put everything out of my mind, but there is a cement truck pouring foundation for a new house across the street from ours, and further down, a whole team of men are hammering on the skeleton of another new house, and nothing ever gets built, it is all just smoke and rattling the windows, and red clay dust in every crevice of my body, and it never stops.
When I walk in the door, David is standing in front of me. He knows. My mother.
“Are you okay?”
He is being serious when he asks this.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he says.
We moved into this house months ago, but all of our things are still in boxes. Every time I think about unpacking, I get distracted. Every time I think about anything, I get distracted. Sometimes I wonder who let all this distraction into my life.
“Here, let’s sit down,” David says.
I start up the stairs. My eyes do not leave him as I move.
“Where are you going?”
“No,” I say. “Just no, okay?”
I am at the top of the staircase before he can reach the bottom. I do not have to think about this.
“Talk to me,” he says. I am in the bathroom. I am taking a bath, leave me alone. Steam hides everything after my knees. My father killed himself when I was three. I don’t remember anything about him.
Over the running water, I can hear David shouting. I married him because I wanted to be done falling in love.
“Go away,” I say. “I’m fine.”
My brother says that I am “creative with the truth.” He does not mean that I’m a liar. He is the only person I know who always means exactly what he says.
So when I tell David I am fine, I am not lying. I am not upset or angry. If I feel anything at all, it is my body adjusting to the temperature of the water.