FICTION. 2,565 words. Her name was Kay. She was seven years old, and attended an elementary school in north suburban Massachusetts. Every so often, maybe two or three times a month, Kay would cry in class. Her barely audible sobs would come from the back of the room, and would induce a round of murmurs and giggles as the class turned to look at the girl. Most of the time, Kay settled through the tears by herself. And then one day her older sister came into the room, and silenced the class forever.
The year was 1972. Kay was my classmate. And I was one of the gigglers.
The first time Kay cried in class was in the early part of the second grade, mid-September. And in response, our teacher, Mrs. S., paid Kay a visit. The discussion wasn’t long, or dramatic. Mrs. S. probably spent less than seven seconds orbiting Kay’s miniature desk. A stern look and a quick question to Kay—a private question—stopped the crying.
A few weeks later, the class turned around—Kay was at it again. Soft whimpers came from the thin, dark-haired girl. Mrs. S. left her alone this time. Why orbit and stare when one could simply stare where one stood? Stare and talk; stare and conduct the classroom lecture; stare and be silent. The lesson of the moment continued without formal interruption.
Kay cried alone. She cried quietly, without making a scene. She didn’t have friends to close in and offer words. She didn’t have an answer when Mrs. S. asked: Do you need to go to the office?
I was the student in charge of distributing the pre-packed lunches, for the kids who chose to buy at school. The janitor would come by at about eleven-thirty to get the count for the day, and I’d go to the basement delivery table and help him carry up the wrapped sandwiches and pints of milk. I also collected the money. With this privilege, I was afforded a certain mobility in the classroom.
I was able to get a good look at Kay.
My impression—even as I eye-rolled at each pitiful overflow—was that Kay was something of an island. Or more accurately, Kay was like a dark, drooping tree, alone on a towel-sized clump of Pacific sand. And the rest of us were boats, tiny, colorful, bouncing, and mobile. When I looked at her—and then looked at our cryless class—that’s what I saw.
Who knew why she cried? I never heard any classmates postulate theories. Not a whisper of problems regarding Kay’s home life. No word of her living in a new neighborhood, or falling behind in school, or suffering the loss of a parent. No hint of divorce: Mrs. S. would’ve been sensitive to that, right? We weren’t aware of any hardship.
The cryless class had a bank of knowledge on itself. Some facts had been established in the first grade; some were additive. Personal information seemed to flow among various circles of Mrs. S’s children. Bill had a hardship: His mom had one arm. Many of the class knew it. I knew it; Kristen, Pete, John, and Andy knew it. As a result of a lifetime of being carried around like a football, Bill turned every recess activity into some variation of that game.
Lisa, who sat up front, had problems too; she lived with her grandmother. Her parents were split up and she was left with her mom’s mom. Lisa took her hardship to paper and rendered scenes of home, scenes that always depicted three adults and one child.
Then there was Mike, who believed he was a member of the Planet of the Apes, and spoke in the character of Cornelius at all times. Mike would hunch and run and squeal, refusing to acknowledge anyone who didn’t identify as an ape—except for Mrs. S. of course, who assumed a sort of director’s status. In Mike’s world he was Cornelius and if you were a girl you were Zira and if a boy, you were Dr. Zaius. If he didn’t know you very well, you were a Soldier Ape—and that was a unisex role. When recess was over Mike would sit sniffing the air. When the school day was over, he would skip sideways home—all the way home. We’d watch from the windows sometimes. Our hardships manifested in odd ways.
Kay wasn’t just our sole crier; she was a crier without a backstory. Simple as that. We knew nothing of her situation. And she suffered alone.
In our classroom, no one asked what seems now to be an obvious question: What was so upsetting to Kay?
Elementary school in 1972 was not like how it is today. There were no thoughts of school shootings, not in anyone’s wildest imagination. Kay was not in fear of a gun or knife related event; in fact toy guns—complete with gunpowder, smoke, and a heck of a bang—were part of normal play.
Was Kay being bullied? In the golden days of the web-free world, bullying was fairly confined. Bullies were known troublemakers—they did not hide among the general population. Not in our town. Bullies were “out”, and few in number. If a kid was being bullied, it was at recess or during the walk home. Most everything else was considered teasing, and teasers often made bigger fools of themselves than their targets. In the days before the web, teasers couldn’t hide behind anonymous screen names or distribute humiliating photographs. Kay’s tears were not because of a viral post. In our classroom, bullying was visible—the kids knew who was getting what, and by whom. No one was kicking Kay’s proverbial chair.
Maybe she was imagining the future. Maybe there was something in her mind that allowed her—no, forced her—to look ahead, a horrible prospect for some children. And in her vision, life might have seemed too complex to manage. Perhaps she was squirming over the mysteries of the checkbook—how would a person go about getting one of those things? How was the book supposed to be filled out? Where do the checks come from? Who made sure it was set up properly? Who oversaw the operation—who was responsible?
How would Kay know what to do? When everyone else seemed to know what to do?
Perhaps Kay was terrified of the present. Why am I in this room? Why can’t I be home? When will I get to go home? Is everything at home OK right now? How do I know? Do they know I’m here?
Tears. Because the teacher said: “Do you need to go to the office?” When Kay’s comprehension of yet one more question was simply out of the question.
One day in early-November Kay started up again. It wasn’t obvious; it never was. The class was in the midst of counting out loud by two’s, when a rain cloud came in and snuck over the droopy tree. And, as often happened, we rolled our eyes at the frail one.
Then someone made a bold move. To this day I don’t know who it was. One of us kids somehow found out Kay had an older sister, Sally, whose fifth-grade class was across the building and up two flights of stairs. Ten-year old Sally got the word, excused herself, and made her way down to our classroom. She was going to save little Kay.
I think I saw her first. Sally appeared in the rear doorway, a face in the window and a hand on the doorknob. Without a sound she let herself in. She stood just inside the room—hardly anyone noticed. Her darting eyes spotted Kay and then made contact with Mrs. S. The class was still reciting numbers; we’d reached the two-hundred-and-eighties and were in self-rallying mode, feeling the thrill of how far we could go. Mrs. S. gave Sally a nod, and the girl was free to move inside our classroom.
The class was immersed in chanting—“two hundred ninety, two hundred ninety-two,” And I saw it; Sally knelt next to her sister. She put her hand on Kay’s arm and whispered something. With all the class noise I couldn’t hear what was going on, but I could see. Kay shook her head a few times. She nodded a few times too—still, so quietly! Then she seemed to agree with something Sally said. Yet the crying continued.
Two hands grasped my head. Firm hands, large hands, perfumed. Mrs. S. turned me to face the front of the room and I think I still have the marks on my temples. “Do not stare,” she said.
She walked back to her desk, then immediately focused her attention on another student’s craned head. As much as I wanted to obey my teacher, I snuck a look back at the two girls.
“Three-hundred twelve, three-hundred fourteen,” I had to pay attention to the classroom sounds, because if I’d heard the clicks of high-heeled sandals I’d be done for.
Sally was still kneeling, and Kay was still the drooping tree. Kay’s tears weren’t stopping, and Sally wasn’t giving up.
I began to hear their conversation. Just bits of words, shards of sentences. I focused on Sally. Ten-year-olds don’t typically manage situations, never mind those of high stress. Kay’s sister looked at me and smiled; I smiled back. Later on, other kids would recall the elder girl smiled directly at them, as well.
Kay seemed to be calming down. The sisters’ voices were even louder than before. That’s when I understood why—the class’s counting had stopped.
I was stunned. Every boy and girl was looking at the sisters. The image of Sally kneeling next to Kay began to take on a grand significance, an Iwo Jima monument to grade school kids.
Kay was no longer alone. And Sally’s work was just getting started.
Soon I noticed kids were turning to face the front of the room again. Their mocking sneers were gone. Their smiles were wiped out. Faces were abrupt pink and red. Hands were placed on desks, fingers intertwined. Eyes were lowered.
We were destroyed.
I looked to Bill, my buddy who’d lived his life being picked up and carried like a football. He rested his head on one hand; obviously deep in thought. Years later, a bunch of us talked about this very moment, and how it affected us.
As a young boy at home, when Bill had asked to be picked up, he’d done what most kids had done: He held his arms high in the air.
As I looked at him sitting in Mrs. S’s classroom, he kept his head down, his brightened ear sticking out like fire alarm. He would never know what it would feel like to have his mother pick him up with two hands.
He didn’t feel all that bad for himself. He felt horrible for his mother. This was Sally’s impact on our class that day.
Lisa was sitting behind Bill. She, too, had watched Sally and Kay. Now she stared dumbly at her crossed thumbs, thinking of a well-dressed, smiling man. On the first day of class Lisa’s father had paid a surprise visit to the school. Typically on first-days, parents signed the kids in and chatted with the teacher for a while, as the kids settled into their surroundings. Lisa’s grandmother had done the job, and all was fine. Then Lisa’s dad showed up—he’d driven all the way from New York—and Lisa had been ecstatic. Dad was in a suit and tie, and was absolutely beaming at her! And she asked him, at which door would he be waiting when it was time to walk home?
“Some parents wait at the front, some at the Pleasant Street side door,” she’d told him. “No one ever waits at the back door, daddy.”
Her father remained cheery as he’d replied to her. “Sweetheart, I’m not going to be around for that, but maybe, one day?” And now Lisa sat at her desk, eyes wet for the first time in six months, thinking of the smiling man whom she adored, and who would never be waiting. Not out front, not at the Pleasant Street entrance, and not at the school’s back door, either.
Sally hadn’t meant to, but she had slain the cryless class. What had she done? She hadn’t addressed us. Hadn’t scolded us. There’d been no sidebars with Mrs. S. She’d assigned no blame.
Yet at every desk that afternoon, we were all compelled to face a fact: One of us was hurting. One of us had been hurting for over two months.
And we’d all ignored her. At best. Mostly, we mocked her. And we fell like dominoes. Because each of us was a Kay in waiting. Our membranes were a little thicker, was all.
I was the boy with the secret in his pocket—a dreaded secret. I had a pink ticket, which I turned over to the janitor every morning.
The pink ticket was for eligible families who needed help with the cost of lunch. My ticket, plus a dime, bought me a sandwich and milk for the day. I’d set myself up as the class volunteer so I could discreetly pay the janitor without bringing attention to my difference. I’d hand him all the quarters, plus one dime and the ticket.
And so on the day of Sally’s visit, I got why Kay cried. I got it real good. I’d pushed it off or swallowed it down or locked it away all year. My dad was trying to find work—I knew it from the family talks at night. He went from being a cook to selling cars to carrying boxes. My dime and pink ticket was a man providing for his son, as best he could. That dime was the best he could do for me, and God that hurt. It hurt me every day.
Mike, the Planet of the Apes boy, was the last to crack. In many ways, his circumstance was the most devastating. You see, nobody spoke in Mike’s home. Not one word. He had two parents; their guilt was silent abuse. No one conversed in that house. The only words Mike heard were uttered on a television screen.
And now, with his cryless class broken and strewn around him, Mike broke too. “I’d like to go to the water fountain, Mrs. Stevens,” he asked, as he’d seen others do it.
Mrs. S. looked over her subdued class. “Anyone else? Anyone else want to get a drink?” Lisa stood up to join Mike and they headed towards the door. Then another voice, faint and gentle, spoke up.
“Four hundred. Four hundred and two,” Kay said. Then, feeling firmer ground: “Four hundred and four. Four hundred six.” Sally was gone.
The class froze. We looked at each other. We looked at Mrs. S. Then we joined in, clearing our throats, straightening our desks back to neater rows, madly thinking of how to apply the even-amount methodology to numbers we’d never spoken.
We followed Kay’s lead.
Lisa and Mike stopped, just as they were exiting the room. For a moment they were confused as to what to do. They conferred and quickly agreed: They’d run and get their sips, and be back to join the group.
ABOUT- Ara Hagopian’s debut book “What Happened to Vicky Lee? A Collection of Stories” is out now: http://vickyleethebook.com/
ARTIST’S NOTE: Special thanks to Nazareth Academy of Wakefield MA, who graciously granted permission to photograph on the site of the former Hurd Elementary School.
The story is loosely based on my first to fifth-grade student experiences at the Hurd. I’ll never forget the real “Kay”, our class’s response to her, and her sister’s caring interlude. When I think about the older girl’s effort, I hope I’m not the only one whose life was touched.
The photograph was taken with the Sony A7R camera, in watercolor mode, from the approximate height of a second-grader. I knew this playground well, having spent virtually every day from 1971-1976 in or outside this building.
The basketball court is gone. The fence is choked with vines. The shuttleball cone has been removed, same goes for the jungle gym, which would have been just around the middle corner you see in the lower center of the picture.
On occasion at the end of recess, our fifth-grade teacher used to stand in front of the window seen here and grant us extra time for play. She would hold up her hand and shout “Five minutes!”, to many cheers.