Yesterday during arrival time when we’re all supposed to be at our doors policing (our chicken shit principal says greeting, but it’s policing) the students as they walk down the hallway, Yates (who’s never out there) comes up to me and says, “You see the latest e-mail? It’s against union rules.” I play dumb though I know what he’s talking about. Principal Kirkwood announced that in order to cut down on cafeteria problems he’s asked that each teacher stay with his class until it gets through the line. “Duty free lunch,” Yates hisses. He shakes his head, turns and walks away. The asshole walks right back into his classroom, and I can hear him giving this phony hale and hearty greeting to a couple of his students. Yates is a newbie, but he’s not young. He’s one of those second career guys. During parent meetings he talks about changing careers because he wanted to make a difference, but in the lounge he jokes and says, “June, July, and August.” He was some kind of mid level management guy with a degree in business, took a few summer courses, and presto—he’s a teacher. Some of the female staff coo over him like he’s a hero, wondering why he’d give up his assistant manager Bob job to work with all of us. They’re stupid. I know why. Maybe it’s the June, July, and August thing, but it’s also a steady paycheck and benefits. An actual pension. His wife is some kind of bullshit artist. And, of course, this year he’s my partner.
“You’ll make a good team,” Kirkwood told me at the beginning of the year. “I’ve thought a lot about this.” Yates filled a vacancy in January last year. He worked upstairs with another newbie, and it was a disaster. Their kids ran the halls. His partner quit before the end of the year; she just never came back to the school.
“Role models.” Kirkwood rocked back and forth in his office chair, twirled a pencil in his left hand. “You see it?” He smiled, pleased with himself. “It’ll work on a couple of levels.” Kirkwood’s been at our school for three years, and every new hire since then—other than Yates —has been a young, white female. Arnie’s Harem. “I know he had a rough start. But you’ve got the experience, and you know the students here. This will work, Helen.”
I imagined my father in his work clothes standing behind me. “You know you’re in trouble when the boss starts using your first name.” I nodded, and Kirkwood probably thought I was nodding at him.
“You have the perfect personality for this job. You’re quiet, steady. You lead by example.”
Bullshit. Kirkwood’s probably thinking of some trope about Asians. In reality I’m a pariah; the Boy Wonder is just too stupid to see it. Now my first few years I did try. I was pleasant and friendly and did the requisite kissing up to the old timers. I made the awkward rounds to their rooms after school, joined them in the hallways to gossip. They were always polite, but always turned away before making eye contact. “Were you there? I didn’t realize you were there, Ms. Nagata.” I used to tell myself it was racial, but maybe I was too desperate, and they could smell it on me, or maybe I’m just an asshole, too. Funny thing, after a while I stopped, just gave up, and then I really wasn’t there after all.
“Duty free lunch, man. Duty free lunch.” Yates has his hands in his pockets; he shakes his head in disgust. It’s our planning period; our kids are at their specials. “Someone should call the union.”
I pretend like I’m concentrating on grading papers. I know that won’t discourage Yates; he’ll stand there forever. The petty part of me wonders how Yates gets anything done. He arrives with the kids and usually stays no later than required by contract. But he’s friendly and glib. Other teachers often gather in his room; their deep laughter fills the empty hallways. As they’re leaving sometimes someone will poke his head into my room. Still laughing. “It must be so much fun to teach with Brian.” Then a wrinkled brow, a frown. “What are you doing in here, Ms. Nagata?” Yeah, I’m jealous. If I could I’d probably be right there with them. Jesus, I am an asshole.
“I timed it today,” Yates said. “Ten minutes.”
Debbie Patterson wanders into my room, glances at the assignments I’ve written on the board. She checks almost daily because she also teaches math. Usually she just stands on the threshold like she’d risk contamination if she stepped into the room. “I just want to make sure I’m on the right path. You keep me focused.” Actually we’re in competition, and she wants to make sure she’s at least a lesson or two ahead of me. I once thought of fucking with her and posting some lesson we usually don’t hit until spring, but like everyone else at Nathan Hale Middle School, I’m all talk.
“What do you think about Kirkwood’s e-mail?” Yates asks.
Debbie raises her brows, smiles. “Just another task, I guess.”
“Someone needs to call the union.”
She gives a slight shiver, turns towards her room. “I’ve got work to do. Ms. Nagata, you’re so focused.” She calls over her shoulder, “You’re making me feel guilty.” My first year I had to rely on Debbie for help. I wince now when I think of my attempts to ingratiate myself. “Is there something else you wanted, Ms. Nagata?” That was her way of dismissing me. She’d smile up at me from her desk, tilt her head. “Anything else?” I learned that if she agreed and encouraged me to follow any of my first year ideas it usually meant I’d later be called into the office and have to suffer through our former principal’s bemused and patient speech about “what is a realistic expectation, Ms. Nagata, and what is not.” Now I admire her gamesmanship. “Did you create something new to introduce fractions?” I knew one of my students had leaked the assignment. “No,” I shook my head, “You were so right. Just followed the book.” We grinned at each other.
Years ago on winter break when my dad was still alive we were watching this monster movie that had an Asian guy in it. He was some kind of scientist aggressively kissing ass for grant money. The white scientists also needed the money but they were so focused on their work they didn’t have time to shuffle and beg. Of course the Asian guy was chubby and wore thick glasses. He was self-centered, sneaky, his face always oily with sweat, and in the end he screamed like a girl when he was eaten by the monster. My dad was sick and weak; we were watching the movie in the nursing home rec. room. I thought he had fallen asleep; his chin was on his chest. But when the guy started screaming my dad raised his head, frowned. “Screw them.” His voice was thin and thready. He’d been a union man all his life. Blue collar. Broad-shouldered. Strong. Always voted the party line.
I laughed, and my father slowly turned his head and stared at me. “That guy’s a hero.”
That afternoon at faculty meeting Kirkwood shows us his Power Point on last year’s test scores. He praises the seventh grade team for improvement in one of the subgroups, and though Debbie and a few others cheer and applaud, the rest of us—including the well wishers—immediately begin to hate that team and hope this year they fail.
Near the end of the meeting one of Arnie’s harem stands up and says, “Doesn’t everybody think the behavior in the cafeteria today was excellent?” The young woman turns as if surveying the room to see who’s in agreement. It’s so silent I can actually hear the fluorescent lights buzzing. Kirkwood steps back from the screen, folds his arms and purses his lips. That’s when Debbie makes her brilliant move. She leans across the table, looks at Yates and me. “Let’s get another team’s perspective,” she smiles. “What do you think, Ms. Nagata? Brian?” Yates shrugs, mumbles, “I’ll let Ms. Nagata go first.” Someone in the back snickers.
“Ms. Nagata?” Kirkwood cocks his head like some damn terrier.
“Well,” I draw a breath, try to control my voice. I’m fine in front of a classroom. No nerves at all. Maybe I am a bully. My colleagues are watching; I guess they see me now. I look back at their smooth, calm faces, and suddenly I’m angry. I can feel it tingling my fingertips and skin, dampening my hearing like a head cold.
It’s hatred; I lower my eyes in an effort to hide. I’m a goddamn role model all right.
Kirkwood smiles, “What?”
“Brian?” I look at Yates. He won’t meet my eye, but he nods his head and mumbles, “Sure.”
“Lunch duty.” Kirkwood puts his finger against his lips as though he’s thinking.
“You could set up a rotating schedule.” I glance at Debbie, smile. “Strictly voluntary, of course.”
Kirkwood nods, “What does everybody think of Ms. Nagata’s idea?”
One of the harem stands as if she’s still a student in class. Her voice is loud, impassioned. “I think if it helps keep our students safe I’ll volunteer. I’m willing to give up my lunch period.” Several of the other members turn to each other and nod.
“All right then,” Kirkwood says. “I’ll send around an e-mail tomorrow morning. Those who want to volunteer can sign up.”
The meeting breaks up; people begin to file out of the library. No one says anything to me. Debbie pushes in her chair, glances back over her shoulder at me, and grins. We both know I’m even more of a pariah now. I close my eyes, take a calming breath. The acid is burning away in my stomach. What the hell. I think of my father and smile. I’m not the only one who’ll be screaming like a little girl.
Barbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago; she’s one of a handful of blues in a solidly red state. Her work has appeared in various reviews including Discover Nikkei, The Baltimore Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Emerge Literary Review, Limestone, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Chagrin River Review.