Ryan Shane Lopez

The Clench

                The young woman in the doorway of her classroom lifted two fingers and placed them over the system of tightly wound gears concealed within her chest. Her kind but anxious eyes glazed as she envisioned the intricate layers of tiny iron teeth, interlocking like the innards of a clock. Her gentle fingers bumped against swollen rib joints as she mechanically rubbed at the chronic tension beneath her sternum. Here, the mainspring was housed, regularly tightened in quarter-turns by some intangible key, stockpiling potential energy, but never releasing it. The motion of the tight rotations made by her wrist traveled down her lanyard, causing her dangling security badge to sway in rhythmic, oblong circles. The badge read:
                Jennifer Farmer - Classroom Facilitator - Greenvale Public High School
                Every morning was the same: The bell would ring. The gears would turn. It would happen any second now. Despite a fun weekend with her husband, despite an hour of yoga the night before, despite 7.5 hours of Benadryl-induced sleep, and despite the countless little prayers peppered across her half-hour commute, the phantom key in her sternum would rotate and the cogs of the internal machine would slide into new positions, constricting her ribcage another millimeter around her already compressed heart and lungs.
                “Just get through the day,” Jenn whispered to herself.
                She crossed her arms, chewed her bottom lip, and crinkled her forehead. Just get through the day—a far cry from her Connect-Engage-Inspire mantra of day 1/172. Which of the past 52 school days had initiated the consensual erosion of her standards?
                Hopeful that Greg had sent one of his formulaic you-can-do-it texts, she reached a hand into her back pocket. But her phone was in her desk drawer. Did she have time to grab it before the bell? Just as she glanced at the digital clock on the attendance monitor mounted beside her door, the glowing numerals changed from 7:54 to 7:55, triggering an electric monotone which permeated the air for exactly two seconds, then dissipated.
                The invisible key turned a quarter-turn. Jenn’s chest constricted.
                Day 53/172 had begun.
                Jenn looked toward the nearest entrance in anticipation of the approaching horde of teenagers. On either side of the glass doors stood two security guards, each coated in kevlar and armed with “pain-free” sleep tasers. Every student has the right to comprehensive highest-quality non-lethal protection provided by trained professionals, she quoted from her C-FERCE study guide. Beyond the glass, students began ambling into view between 10-foot-high chain link fences topped with razor wire, reportedly “to keep strangers out, not students in.” Jenn noticed Dianne was not leading the pack, as usual.
                Watching the teens careening toward her, she noticed her breath quickening. She crossed her arms and looked the other direction. The hallway was barren, not a single colleague waiting at their door. They were technically required to, but after week one, the other facilitators had formed an unspoken pact to foxhole themselves in the relative safety of their respective classrooms. Jenn, on the contrary, had resolved never to hide behind her desk. A resolution she broke only several times a day.
                A click echoed down the tiled hallway, followed by the swell of chatter and footfall as a wave of tired teenagers funneled between the security guards. The click had been emitted by the panic bar as a guard opened the door, but Jenn could have sworn it came from the key in her own sternum, which had just rotated another quarter-turn.
                Jenn reminded herself to uncross her arms, just in time to welcome her first student—a stout girl with striped leggings and fuzzy kitten ears poking out of her bleached hair.
                Jenn smiled. “Good morning, Wind-Rider!” she said, in her Wal-Mart greeter voice.
                “My name is Tiger-Lily,” the girl said without slowing her pouty gait.
                A right to a preferred sense of personal identity. Whose bright idea was that?
                “Oh, I’m sorry,” blurted Jenn. “It’s just that last week you specifically asked me to call you ‘Wind-Rider’. I remember because I made a note here…”
                “Whatever. Just get it right.”
                The girl plopped down at a learning station and began thumb-boxing her smartphone.
                The attendance monitor illuminated with the girl’s mugshot and profile:
                Name: ALISON FLETCHER
                Gender: FEMALE (SHE/HER/HERS)
                Grade: SOPHOMORE
                Attendance: PRESENT/PUNCTUAL
                Arrival time: 7:55:36 AM
                Security Concerns: NONE
                Health Concerns: NCD-0174, DR-652
                Health Concerns were coded for confidentiality. The second code was new. Obviously, a dietary restriction, but Jenn would have to look up the number.
                Students were now schooling up and down the hallway. When Jenn didn’t spot any more of hers, she turned back toward Alison, or rather Tiger-Lily.
                “I hope you had a good weekend,” she chimed, intentionally not phrasing her question as a question. She paused to invite a response. After not receiving one, she said, “Tiger-Lily. That’s really pretty.”
                The “Thank you” Jenn had anticipated was replaced by the swift one-two combos of thumbs against a touchscreen.
                First miss of the day.
                Jenn never spoke about the imaginary clockwork operating inside her chest, or about the ever-increasing tension it produced, not even to Greg, but in her mind, she referred to it as “the clench.” She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the clench had first appeared, but it must have been sometime during the three weeks between her initial hiring and the first day of school. In its infancy, the sensation had been nearly imperceptible, easily mistaken for heartburn. Twice she had scheduled a doctor’s appointment, only to cancel due to her acute hypochondria-phobia—a self-diagnosis she was fairly certain she’d invented, but found nonetheless accurate. Denying the clench, however, had no effect on its malignant expansion. Lately, the strain had become palpable, irrefutable even. And the unflinching back of the bleached, kitten-eared head was enough to rotate the key another quarter-turn.
                A young man plowed into Jenn on his way into class. She had to catch herself against the door frame to keep from falling over. His face was shielded by dark, bulky shades and uneven black bangs. He halted mid-classroom, absorbed in images of God-knows-what, his right hand making rapid, obscure brush-strokes through the air.
                “Akashi, please, don’t wear those while you’re walking. It’s dangerous.”
                “Don’t stand in the doorway,” he muttered.
                Jenn took a deep breath.
                “Take them off and have a seat, please,” she requested with forced politeness.
                “Bell hasn’t rung.”
                “I know it hasn’t, but you’re in the classroom now and…”
                “Leave me alone!”
                Miss number two.
                Jenn went to her desk—immediately input any and all incidents of student disrespect or refusal to comply, whether observed or experienced. She opened a new incident report and noted the time—still more than four minutes until class started. She typed the student’s name, checked “Insubordination,” then hit “Submit.” Please, give a detailed report of the incident, dictated a silver box on the screen. Student refused to remove VR headgear, she typed. Please, select relevant CCTV footage to be viewed by Behavior Specialist.
                As she scrolled past the morning’s footage of her classroom, all Jenn saw was how noticeably tighter her dress was than when she’d bought it two months ago. She caught herself grinding her teeth again. She had to stop that—dentist’s orders. A dozen similar incident reports on Akashi had failed to produce a single disciplinary action from the—wait, never say “disciplinary.” The sensitivity approved term was behavioral redirection strategy. Of course, when she had asked Principal Nguyen about Akashi’s redirection, she herself had been “redirected” to the explicit limitations of a Classroom Facilitator. She would only be provided as much (or as little) information as was legally required.
                “Aarf! Aarf!” A shrill, granulated bark ricocheted between the cinder block walls.
                Three more students had arrived and were huddling around a mini robo-dog.
                “Good morning!” said Jenn, “Welcome back to class!”
                None of them looked up. The dog produced a synthesized growl. Giggling erupted from the trio and the flashing LED eyes and erratically flapping ears yelped in response.
                “Shut that stupid thing up!” snapped Ali—no, Wind-Rider—no, Tiger-Lily.
                Another quarter-turn.
                Jenn remained behind her desk, rendered inert by her own indecision. She thought of confiscating the dog, but knew technically she couldn’t—a right to personal property. She thought of ordering them to put it away, but didn’t want to input another behavioral incident when they inevitably ignored her. She thought of strolling over and feigning interest: Can I try feeding him a digital doggy bone? Wow, that’s cool! What else can he do?
               She knew exactly what that waste of technological advancement could do. Her spoiled niece had the same model. Which is how Jenn knew it cost $1200. She also knew that Quentin and Lexus both had single moms who worked multiple jobs and Harlem lived with his retired grandparents. She saw their families every Friday after school while volunteering to pass out winter coats and backpacks stuffed with canned goods. How do economically disadvantaged kids get ahold of a $1200 gadget? Steal money from their parents? Guilt grandpa into spending his Social Security check on a toy instead of utilities? Rob a Best Buy at gunpoint? Was Best Buy still in business? Even if she really wanted to know how these kids got a robo-dog, she couldn’t ask them—a right to domestic privacy, a right to an environment free of racial profiling. Were these kids black? Mexican? Asian?
                Jenn’s time was better spent greeting students at the door than strategizing no-win campaigns from behind her desk, so she begrudgingly added the robo-doggy trio to her mental list of that morning’s casualties.
                Miss three.
                Miss four.
                Miss five.
                On her way back to the door, Jenn realized two more souls had wandered in and slipped behind their computers. She was tempted to ignore them, but couldn’t mute Aunt Lisa’s words, always playing on repeat: Never miss an opportunity to build a relationship.
                “Oh, hey guys!” Oops! She wasn’t supposed to say “guys.” Too suggestive. Or was it too inclusive? She self-corrected, “Good morning, Benito! Good morning, Agaisha!”
                No reaction.
                Miss six. And seven.
                At the doorway, Jenn met a pale, skinny teen with sandy disheveled hair hanging past his shoulders. She instinctively reached a hand forward to welcome him. He stepped back and raised his hands as if she were brandishing a knife.
                “Woah. Careful, Teach,” came his typical detached tone.
                “Hi, Liam,” she attempted a smile, but only managed a grimace. “Sorry. Old habits.”
                “I don’t know, man,” Liam droned on as he sidled around her with his bony hands pointing skyward. “Can’t be too cautious, know what I’m saying. Might have some bad intentions. Lot of folks out there taking advantage of innocent youths like me.”
                How could she possibly offer a relationship-building response to that? Compliment his sense of humor? Apologize? Join the joke and act like her handshake was a lethal weapon?
                “Nice to see you, too,” was all she said.
                Miss eight.
                Liam’s friend with the aviators, shaved head, and pimples trailed in behind him.
                “Don’t wanna get called to the principal’s office again,” he said and snickered.
                For a passing moment, Jenn’s embarrassment and anger overshadowed the clench. How did they know Principal Nguyen had handed down her first formal warning on Day 3/172 for simply offering students a handshake on their way into class? Those two were computer savvy. Had they hacked her email? Or maybe the CCTV? Had they guffawed over footage of her twenty-minute ass-chewing for violating students’ right to refuse physical contact and their right to personal space and blah, blah, blah?
                Breathe. You don’t have to like them all; you just can’t let them know it.
                Mr. Mabe’s secret advice for teaching. Six years after graduating, Jenn still idolized the way her senior English teacher had waited at his door every day to shake the hand of each student as they entered his room—that unforgettable room where they bared their souls, where they crossed new boundaries of the imagination, where they were imbued with life-long inspiration. She could still feel Mr. Mabe’s firm grip engulfing her hand, could still see his wise, blue irises peering down through his bifocals, could still hear his meek yet sonorous voice saying, “Hey, Doll!” or “How we doing, Sis?” His simple, but sincere greeting had made her feel like she truly mattered when nothing else did. This was all she wanted from her job: to make a student feel the way Mr. Mabe had made her feel.
                Now, fearing another administrative rebuke, Jenn trembled with apprehension each time a teenager brushed against her in the hallway. Even with the one student who actually wanted to shake her hand everyday, Jenn caught herself first checking to make sure no one was watching. Where was Dianne anyway? She was usually the first to arrive.
                Liam and his friend took a seat next to each other, their backs to Jenn. She couldn’t remember the bald one’s name because he hadn’t bothered to show up for class in over two weeks. She glanced at the attendance monitor, then said, “Nice to have you back, Korbin. Please, remember to check your Completion Meter to see what you’ve missed.”
                Korbin scratched the back of his head with his middle finger.
                In the hallway, a tiny girl in all black was speed walking past. Her ears were plugged with tiny white stoppers emitting muffled screams and blast-beats.
                “Hi, Seattle,” chirped Jenn. “Will you be joining…”
                Before she could finish, the girl swiped her ID badge through the doorway to trigger the attendance monitor as she flew by.
                “Having an episode!” she shouted. “Going to see the counselor!”
                Jenn watched Seattle get swallowed by the swarm of adolescents, powerless to call her back—a right to mental health services without...what was the term? Started with an ‘I’. Interference? Inquiry? No. Would it be on her Classroom Facilitation Ethical Responsibilities Certification Exam? She only had a month left to study. Was it a bad sign that the thought of flunking out of her certification program made it easier to breathe?
                Anyway, miss nine—no, ten.
                “Hi, Mrs. Farmer,” said a timid, raspy alto.
                The clench jumped by a half-turn.
                Jenn hoped the inward jolt hadn’t been outwardly visible. She turned to see purple eyeshadow, clumpy eyeliner, one-inch gauges, and buzzed, bright green hair.
                “Hi, Skyler.”
                As Skyler entered, Jenn stepped aside and glanced at the attendance monitor, hoping to see some new information in the gender field, but it still read “Preference unspecified.” A right to a preferred sense of personal identity, a right to equal and unbiased treatment, a right to an emotionally safe learning environment—asking Skyler his/her/their gender preference would violate these and multiple other student rights. Jenn didn’t even dare to ask other students or co-workers about Skyler. She didn’t know how to talk about this stuff. She’d heard in church all her life that it was immoral, but she wasn’t sure she believed that anymore and gender studies wasn’t ever covered in her cert program. Or her job description.
                Neither was relationship building, for that matter. When she’d tried including “fostering trust through strong, individuated relationship building” in the mission statement portion of her self-assessment, Mr. Travis made her redo the entire assignment. But in fact, getting to know her students wasn’t a mission. It was a duty and privilege. So, her personal goal was to make a little more small talk with Skyler each day in hopes that, as he/she/they grew more comfortable with her, he/she/they would volunteer his/her/their pronouns on his/her/their own terms.
                However, Jenn was so terrified of betraying her discomfort with ambiguous gender and so equally terrified of ignorantly saying something offensive or incriminating, all she could manage was, “New haircut?”
                Skyler nodded.
                “Very cool,” said Jenn, needlessly nodding her own head and feeling very uncool.
                Skyler raised his/her/their eyebrows and waited a few awkward seconds, but Jenn’s lips remained pressed together, so he/she/they proceeded to his/her/their learning station.
                Miss eleven.
                Next to Skyler, Jenn noticed a massive black boy sitting and staring through a blank screen. When had he slipped in?
                “Hi, A-krux.”
                She turned back to the hall without waiting to be ignored. A-krux hardly spoke and never looked anyone in the eye. Jenn was clueless as to the roots of this antisocial behavior—or whatever the new sensitivity approved term for “antisocial” was. Classroom Facilitators weren’t allowed access to medical or psychological assessments. Despite that fact, she had still been required to sign documents acknowledging that she would be held legally responsible for failure to daily implement any of his three pages worth of instructional accommodations, none of which she could remember at the moment.
                Another miss.
                “Morning, Jetaime,” Jenn greeted a girl with a pixie haircut, skin-tight jeans, and no noticeable shirt or bra beneath her half-zipped hoodie.
                “Uh...it’s pronounced ‘juh-TAY-mee,’” snapped the girl.
                Jetaime was holding hands with May, the expressionless Chinese girl. Jenn still hadn’t determined if she understood English.
                “Right.” Jenn held up a finger. “I’m sorry, but did I tell you I keep getting it confused because je t’aime is actually French for ‘I love you?’”
                “Uh, yeah,” said Jetaime, “Like a hundred times. My name’s still Jetaime.” The couple rolled their eyes in unison and stormed over to their learning stations.
                Jenn knew she had never explained the French term before, but apparently Jetaime had heard it so often from others it had become more of an annoyance to her than the interesting trivia Jenn had hoped it would be. Next, Jenn would have explained that she’d spent a study abroad semester in Paris. Amazed, the girls would begin a barrage of questions. She’d tell them about trying foie gras—before she knew the ethical implications, of course—and exploring the damp and creepy Catacombs and how when asking for a toilette once, she’d embarrassingly asked a stranger if he wanted to fight—Toi? Lutte? She’d also tell May how she’d never visited China, but she’d always wanted to and how the Great Wall was the world’s largest graveyard because whenever one of the workers who built it died they’d toss him into the wall as filler. Then, May would teach them both to say “I love you” in Chinese.
                That’s how Jenn had imagined it. But instead, miss...How many was that again?
                Next at the door was Cinder, her lazy eye and excessively wide grin emitting an aura of obtuse innocence.
                “Hey, Mrs. F.,” she said with a slight lisp.
                “Hi, Cinder. We missed you Friday,” said Jenn, careful to avoid implying any particular reason for the girl’s absence.
                She was blindsided when Cinder said, “I had my first ultrasound. Wanna see?”
                Jenn was still processing the words when Cinder produced a black and white blur.
                “I’m having a baby!” shrieked the girl.
                “Oh, um, congratulations. I had no idea.”
                Cinder cooed over the sonogram, oblivious to the hesitancy in Jenn’s voice.
                “Yeah, my boyfriend Joey and I, we been trying for, I dunno, like months, so, you know, we like really excited.”
                Jenn felt a gut-wrenching urge to erupt into a lecture on child-rearing responsibilities and the importance of a stable nuclear family. She didn’t have to be a family planning curriculum specialist to know fifteen was too young to become a mother. Jenn wanted children, of course. But at age 24 and after two years of marriage, she still felt vastly unprepared, even if Greg did think she was being too “tentative.” She wished Cinder had asked her advice. Her students never asked her advice about anything. Jenn wouldn’t have survived high school without those few trusted teachers to whom she could always go in a bind. Had times changed? Did students no longer view their teachers as friends and mentors? Or was it just her?
                None of it mattered.
                Legally, Jenn was forbidden from intentionally influencing her student’s personal decisions—a right to sexual autonomy, a right to family planning, etc.—so she just said, “That’s great, Cinder.”
                “I know,” Cinder replied, beaming. “Some say I’m like too young or whatever, but my mom had me at like 13 or something and look at me.”
                Intelligence plus character—that is the true goal of education.
                As she watched the elated mother-to-be prance into room 403, Dr. King’s words resounded in Jenn’s brain. They had been plastered on the wall beside her desk until an anonymous complaint on Day 21/172 had earned her a fourth formal warning—violating a student’s reasonable right to an agenda-free learning environment. That entire Saturday was spent replacing her handmade motivational posters with non-religious, amoral, culturally vague, gender-neutral colored patterns. She was also not allowed to leave the walls blank—a right to a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing learning environment.
                The key in her sternum made a half rotation as she stared at the colorful, inspirationless walls of 403. She doubted any poster had ever changed a life, but she saw the stripping of her classroom as symbolic of the stripping her of the right to teach the meaning of character—though technically, she had never been allowed to teach anything.
                Was Cinder really without character? She was sweet and caring. It was conceivable that she’d make a wonderful mother, despite her age. Surely, she’d do her best to love and provide for her baby. Was Jenn overstepping her bounds? Was she being prudish? Was she seriously considering that a 15-year-old, unwed, pregnant girl was okay?
                Mr. Mabe would have known how to respond. Gentle, yet challenging. Encouraging, without sacrificing principle—the perfect words never eluded that man. Maybe Jenn was cut from a different cloth. Maybe she was never meant to be a teacher. The best sentence she had been able to construct was That’s great, Cinder.
                The electronic monotone penetrated her ears again. The passing period had ended.
                As she was shutting the door, Jenn heard, “Hey, hold up, beautiful.”
                A scrappy wannabe thug was approaching, escorted by a security guard.
                “Hi, Zavier.”
                “That’s right, baby girl. Zavier, yo savior.” He stroked his dark peach fuzz and ogled her. “I’ll help you find God, know what I’m saying.”
                “You’re late again,” she responded.
                “Don’t worry, girl, I won’t be late tonight. Just gimme yo address.”
                This braggadocious banter was nothing new and nothing serious compared to Day 7/172, when a young man twice her size had been waiting for her at her car. She had censored the specifics of that encounter from her memory. But unlike it, Jenn wasn’t now the true target of Zavier’s machismo. He was performing for the peers he knew could overhear him inside the classroom. Still, this type of sexual aggression always pried its way beneath her skin. However, she couldn’t file an incident report for mere flirting. As long as she wasn’t touched without permission or openly threatened, it was considered within the normal parameters of male adolescent behavior. What really aggravated her was Zavier’s intentional crowding of these thin legal boundaries within an inch.
                From his shocked expression, Jenn guessed the security guard escorting Zavier felt he should intervene, but had no idea where to start. She couldn’t blame him. She thanked him as Zavier entered and the monitor marked his attendance: PRESENT/UNPUNCTUAL.
                Jenn considered asking the guard’s name, but he’d probably quit within the month. She only hoped he’d be better than the guard who, on Day 12/172, had sleep-tasered and handcuffed Zavier in the middle of her classroom after something in his backpack had set off a security concern on the attendance monitor. How had a public high school become a place where teachers were chastised for offering a student a handshake, but a security guard could lawfully drag a kid away, unconscious and drooling, in front of his peers? The guard never even searched Zavier’s backpack.
                From the doorway, Jenn surveyed her class. Cinder was waving her sonogram in Agaisha’s face. Lexus was finally putting her robo-dog in its “dog house.” May and Jetaime were cuddling while Zavier recorded the action for later. A-krux was still as blank as his computer screen. Ali-Tiger-Rider was still thumb-boxing her phone. And Akashi was still wearing his gaming headgear, but at least he was seated. A third of the stations were empty.
                “Ok, class,” she attempted a firm, yet friendly tone. “That was the bell so let’s open up our instructional programs and get to work. Everyone knows what to do.” She spoke from an inherent need to fill the void. “Also, let’s make sure all our distractions are put away. Use your time wisely, please.”
                “Yeah people, get to work,” droned Liam without looking away from his screen. “Gotta expand our young minds.”
                Korbin snickered and Jenn noticed the word “FUCK” emanating from his screen.
                Curse words couldn’t strictly be banned from the classroom—a right to self-expression—unless they were explicitly threatening or deriding others. Furthermore, Korbin was typing in an answer document, which meant Jenn was not even allowed to read it without his expressed permission—a right to personal privacy, a right to uncontaminated assessments, etc. Neither was she allowed to re-assign seats—a right to preferred associations, a right to an optimal personalized learning position, and a handful of other “rights” that really just meant the right to get away with shit.
                Breathe, Jenn.
                “Guys…” she cleared her throat. “Um, Class, remember that you are expected to have reached 64% completion before notifications are emailed this Friday.”
                “Just take the roll, woman,” blurted Liam. “That’s all you’re good for.”
                Jenn was irritated by his blatant belittling, but even more so by its accuracy. She couldn’t forget the “friendly reminder” email she’d received on Days 27, 39, & 42/172, outlining her elementary, yet mandatory daily tasks.
                Classroom Facilitators,
                               Be advised, you are required to daily complete the following tasks each class period.
                NO EXCEPTIONS:
                1. Confirm and input attendance during the first five minutes.
                2. Ensure students have all necessary supplies and equipment is functioning properly, then
                promptly input IT requests for any missing, broken, or malfunctioning equipment.
                3. Remind students to stay on task. (Address the class, never the individual.)
                4. Promptly input all behavior incidents. Include detailed description and relevant CCTV
                5. Promptly alert the office of any security or safety concerns.
                6. Maintain a thorough log of all movement in and out of your classroom.
                7. Page for help. NEVER attempt to redirect students or intervene in a conflict. NEVER step
                outside of your classroom BEFORE an aid has arrived to relieve you.

                Her responsibilities could be condensed into seven bullet points, yet the C-FERCE study guide gathering dust on her desk was 498 pages long. Most infuriating was the fact that the attendance monitor automatically scanned the badges and bio-reads of anyone entering or exiting the classroom and immediately updated the front office, making half of her tasks redundant and arbitrary.
                Still, of all existing public school roles, Classroom Facilitation was the one most closely resembling an actual teacher. Jenn had stubbornly pursued it, regardless of her parent’s dire and very vocal warnings, for the simple chance to be daily face to face with the lives she would forever change. However, after eleven weeks on the job, it was apparent that the only reason districts still paid facilitators a salary (as meager as it may be) was because of a legal requirement for adult supervision. How long until her position became an unjustifiable drain on finite funding? The computers tracked progress and attendance, Family Liaisons contacted parents, Instructional Programmers compiled and edited subject content, Assessment Specialists graded, IT maintained equipment, Behavior Specialists disciplined, CCTV recorded all incidents, Security handled student safety, and Counselors did, well, whatever the hell they did in their secret little hideouts. Jenn did practically nothing she had dreamed she’d do as a teacher. But then again, she wasn’t a teacher. She was a facilitator.
                So why was she here? Relationships? What relationships?
                Jenn sighed. Attendance wasn’t going to confirm itself.
                As she scrolled through names on the attendance monitor, she recalled stories of the engaging roll call activities Aunt Lisa had implemented during her impressive 46-year teaching career. Her students would arrive each day to find personalized notes of encouragement or instructions for re-arranging their desks or a fun brain-teaser. Those with troubled home lives or emotional instability, if they were having a bad day, would grab Aunt Lisa on their way into class and whisper their personal code word. She’d give them a special desk and a special assignment for the day, then keep them after the bell for the chance to “empty their backpack of burdens.”
                Jenn was closing the door a second time when she heard, “Coming, Miss Farmer!”
                A girl was waddling toward her, laden with a bulging backpack and a boxy instrument case, her brown ponytail bouncing and her braces gleaming.
                “Hi, Dianne,” said Jenn.
                “Mrs. Farmer, I am SO sorry I’m late!” heaved Dianne.
                “It’s fine. Come on in.”
                “You won’t believe what happened this morning! My mom got rear ended in the parking lot and the guy got pissed! Sorry. I mean, he got real mad. He blamed it all on her when it was totally his fault. Security came and everything. Anyways, I couldn’t get my euphonium out of the trunk ‘cause his car was still smashed up against ours. I just had to stand there in the cold while this douche, sorry, this loser was screaming at my Mom in front of the whole school! Ugh, it totally sucked. Sorry. I mean, it was like, you know, bad. But I’m really sorry I’m late. Do you still have to count me tardy?”
                “Dianne, you know the attendance monitor will mark you unpunctual after the bell rings. I can’t change it from here.”
                “There’s nothing you can do?”
                “You can file a dispute in the office. It’s your first infraction; they might expunge it.”
                “Can I go right now?”
                “I think it’s best for you to spend this time on your lessons.”
                Jenn fully expected Dianne to heave a dramatic sigh, roll her eyes, and storm off toward the office in blatant defiance.
                Instead, she heard, “Yes, ma’am.”
                The monitor flashed UNPUNCTUAL as Dianne entered and Jenn closed the door behind them. Dianne chose a seat near Skyler and began gossiping to him/her/them about her recent parking lot fiasco.
                Jenn sat at her desk. Only a handful of students were actually working on their lessons. After a half-hearted, generic reminder to be productive, she realized she’d never finished inputting Akashi’s behavioral incident. It had timed out. It wasn’t worth starting over. As she selected “CANCEL,” she felt an eighth of a turn at her own lack of integrity, but she assured her inner critic that it wouldn’t have made any difference.
                Without warning, Zavier stood up and walked out. She made a note of it as a security guard’s boot heels clicked past in pursuit of the runaway. He could’ve at least shut the door.
                Jenn furtively slid her phone out of a desk drawer. Still no you-can-do-it text from Greg. Just a reminder to pick up eggs on the way home. Greg was wonderful. Really. Supportive, patient enough to listen to her vent about work for hours each night. As a private pick-me-up, Jenn thumbed through a few photos of their honeymoon in Cancun. She landed on a selfie of their smiling, sunburned faces before a crystal blue sea. Was that the last time she’d smiled like that? The last time she’d felt free and confident? Poor Greg. He must be wondering what happened to the girl he married.
                She exited the photo app and noticed the time was only 8:06. How would she survive until 3:20PM? Day 53/172 had only just begun, but she could already feel the clench forming stress fractures in her ribs. She tried her usual antidotes, but nothing helped relieve the tension. Not closing her eyes and counting to ten, not a deep whiff of her essential oils cocktail, not reciting her weekly memory verse. Nothing.
                The mainspring still tightened. The gears still turned.
                Exasperated, Jenn leaned her elbows against the desk and pressed her palms into her eye sockets to dam up the swelling tears. She knew it looked awkward. She hoped none of her students would notice, but if they did, she’d rather them see her as weird than weak.
                “Please, God,” she whispered into her own chest. “I’m trying.”
                The tension continued to mount.
                She couldn’t stand it any longer. She had to get out of this classroom. And this time it wouldn’t be enough to cry it out in the staff bathroom. She moved to page an aid to relieve her, but as her palms peeled away from her eye sockets, she saw something unexpected. A hand was hovering a few feet from her face, fingers stacked vertically and thumb raised. Dianne was standing there, arm extended and braces gleaming.
                Jenn stared back, waiting for Dianne to ask about her red, watery eyes, but all the girl said was “I almost forgot.”
                Gradually, as Jenn realized the significance of this gesture, she reached out and wrapped her fingers around the girl’s slender hand as if she were clutching a lifeline.
                “Good morning, Dianne,” she whispered.
                Dianne’s bracey smile stretched to full capacity.
                “Morning, Mrs. Farmer.”
                The girl released her grip, bounced back to her seat, and dove into her lessons.
                Jenn sat motionless as the tiny key in her sternum rotated backward and, for the first time that morning, the tension in her chest loosened. The relief was slight, but it was enough—enough to get her through the day.

Ryan Shane Lopez is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Texas State University whose work has been published in Abstract, Deep Overstock, Hypnopomp, and Lunate magazines.
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