Among School Children
Tygh Ridge III
From one Kayanza* hill I could see the other— the steeple, the dusty stone steps where days before I sat under the gaze of students in church school uniforms. Their strong voices and clear eyes said that beneath that beige cloth muscles and smooth skin formed stomachs into softly concave valleys. As I stared, I was surrounded by distended tummies and patchy crops of thinned hair. And beside me, a boy—filthy blue sweatshirt full of holes, pointed low slung stomach pregnant out over knobby knees, and a placid gaze which followed mine but could not see as far. *Kayanza is a market town in Northwest Burundi.
for Johnny McDonough
In a photograph by Alice Austen, “Suspender Salesman, Wall Street, 1896,” two emotions crest over the subject’s face— confidence in men’s need to hold up their pants, and distrust of fashion’s caprice. Behind him squeals from the harbor carom off bricks housing America’s accounting industry. At every desk a pair of suspenders moves over the muscles of scribes. By 1953, when Mrs. Kalley finally cracked, style had already given way to stiletto belts, but my mother cinched me into suspenders, pushed me to the street and off to First Grade where I jolted over desks when I stained my hands, fingerprinted my shirt, or the glass inkwell oozed onto my last seat in the last row, my iron desk dripping gibberish. What else could any young woman who set out to serve have done? For her my infinitesimal fingertips gripped the pen nib to scrawl my name and my first “2” on damp lined paper. If I’ve known you a week, I’ve told you three times. I’ve dramatized that day and lifted rooms full of students out of their sorrows. My classmates screeching as I soared about her room, Mrs. Kalley lunged to grasp my blond egg-shell skull, to shove my mouse-sized shoulders back down, and lashed me, arm and leg, to the cold seat with my dapper red suspenders. Every smirking face is still turned toward my far corner, faces I loved, and in resounding silence, her mouth still, everyone upright, bright and tall in our first dim capacity for irony, the fire bell bleated off the old brick walls. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand her need for calm, to reassure us, babies, but I knew then— her eyes on me as my friends squirmed out the classroom door to safety, some giggling, a few unable to look at me, her eyes on me, the clinical, silent last look from my first cherished muse— I knew she would leave me to burn.