A student walks in, a fragile bird, bobbing her head between fragile shoulders, wings already clipped. A new dress, styled hair, a ribbon of gold in a sea of flax. She looks at me, her teacher, waiting for approval, which I’d gladly give her if we weren’t so opposite. I’m old, she’s young, which is almost not worth mentioning, but for the fact of this being the first barrier. We’ve both been caged by a decorum established to keep us safe. If only she’d smile, yet she can’t, she must feel as if she hasn’t earned that right yet. She lives in a world of sadness. I must infer, because I don’t know her story. How could I? The third week of school, and she’s one of a hundred and fifty that I see for a mere hour per day. I catch her eyeing me again. Waiting. Will someone else step out of this bureaucratic shadow and compliment her? Or will she perch stolidly on the wire that is her desk, hopping from room to room until the final bell rings and she’s left with nothing but the bus ride home where surely an adolescent boy will notice the way the taffeta fabric of the dress hangs over the rounded melon of her knee? He’ll pinch the baby fat below her ribs, pull at the end of her hair, wispy feathers knotting around a fingernail. She’ll settle for this. Someone, anyone, has finally noticed. 

At home, between dicing the tomatoes and changing her sister’s diaper, she’ll think about her day and wonder why no one complimented her dress, why no one noticed the highlights in her hair, why no one noticed anything about her, except for me, who told her to get back to work, to focus on the task at hand, to help her group come up with the answer to a word problem that had nothing to do with her life. 

Later that night, after supper, she looks down at the dress, disappointed in herself for forgetting to take it off when she got home. On one shoulder a puddle of spit-up is drying in a milky patch. The curve of the pleated skirt is bunched and wrinkled, chafing her thighs, while the fabric surrounding her chest is stretched and drooping from her own sweat, the perspiration caused by standing over frying pans and boiling pots. Her family shouts out their orders and takes away the completed plates. They’re too busy to notice that the dress is ruined. Her mother told her not to buy it. Her father told her not to wear it. Her sister asked her just who she was trying to impress. A man, a boy, my teacher, anyone that will help me get away. They don’t hear her over the crash of the dishwasher, the hum of the Mariachi band trilling from the radio. Her voice is stymied by the steam, by her own weak, canary tune.

When her shift is finally over and the baby has been sung to sleep, she picks off the dress sleeve by sleeve, relishing for just a moment the way the fabric feels against her skin until it’s over her head. She wads the whole thing into a ball and opening the door to her closet throws it into the corner where it will settle like a nest joined by the other items she’s worn. Tutu, soccer cleats, beaded necklaces, lipstick, and a communion gown. Each one molted away to make room for a new skin to arrive. Each one a chance to stand out, a new stripe of color on the brown bag of her identity.

She doesn’t know it yet, but as she nestles down into the covers, she’s already settled. Her journey through the mine ends at the first spot of light, a boy on a bus too proud of his own charm to know what he’s started. Married, babies of her own. Maybe she’ll remember the way she felt when saw herself in the mirror, maybe that will be enough. Maybe.
If not, there will be others. You look nice today, I’ll tell the next one.

During the day, Tommy Dean works as a junior high school English teacher. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in Pindeldyboz, Boston Literary Magazine, Blue Lake Review, and 5X5.

This story came to me while teaching one day. I looked at this student and realized that I didn't know much about her, especially her life outside of school. She never seemed to smile and I began to wonder why. This story was my way of trying to understand her.




Copyright 2009