By Jared Alan Smith
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The sun is barely rising as I walk onto the school grounds. We are contracted to be on campus at 7:15, and I‘ve made it just in time. I hemmed and hawed for about fifteen seconds on my way out the door, knowing deep down that if there is any day I needed to be at work, it was this day. Tomorrow comes today. I walked to work fast, with my eyes glued to the ground to avoid looking at anyone. I picked cat hair from my matte black button-down and continued guessing at how many instructors and students would call in sick (to death), when a small girl on her way to the elementary school down the block walked under my stare. She smiled, and I cannot be sure if I smiled back. She mustn’t have been more than three feet tall. Fear does strange things to me.
My head snaps up and the AF-JROTC cadets are raising the unfolded flags in front of the main entrance, one for America and one for Florida. A student of mine pulls hard on the white nylon cord to hoist both banners while the cadets flanking him on either side salute. I can only watch as the stars and stripes ascend into the muted cloud cover above. I swing my backpack around in front of me and pull the green patch from it, reattaching it to the Velcro upside down. I am not a soldier, but go and ask any one of them: an upside-down flag means “help us.” The flag should never be displayed with the union down, unless there is an extreme danger to life or property. I think we have fulfilled that “extreme” requirement. I pull my headphones out of my ears and stuff the wireless headset in my bag.
The front office is quiet, like a mountaintop after a front of snow. A glitter freeze of black and white static graces the television screen in the lobby, a screen that had been running the news nonstop until this morning. I am pretty sure it is not actually broken. I initial in the sign-in book and check my mailbox, just like every other morning. There is a large yellow envelope labeled “PATH,” a program for certifying out-of-field ESE teachers like me. I scratch my name out and write in another teacher’s, one who is also interested in the program because of the federal grant that makes it free to us. There is a good chance the grant will sublimate from solid promise to hot air in the near future. I send her a picture and she tells me that she is home with her children today.
If I had children of my own, I don’t think I’d be here. Moms pulled the entire family out of school on 9/11, and quickly, too. I already have a missed call from her, though my brother and sister have remained silent thus far.
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The Teacher Planning Area is beginning to buzz with the arrival of the rest of my coworkers. The English Department I work in has a Professional Learning Community today, meaning we have 1st period off to commiserate. I find myself unable to plan any learning, professional or otherwise. A teacher unlocks the door along the opposite wall and begins to enter with an armful of folders, speaking quickly to someone already seated at the long table in the middle of the room. I rise from my chair to hold the door so that my peer can drag her cart of yet more organizational materials in behind her. I look through the narrow window in the door to see one of my freshman frowning back at me.
“You better not have voted for Trump!” my student says. She pokes the glass with her finger, and I lean around the door. I haven’t graded her progress monitoring on young fear yet.
“No, honey . . . no.” I pull her finger down from the window. “Go to class,” I say. “. . . Go to class.” I return to my seat at my desk, and teachers continue to flow in behind me.
“How did your formal go?” one asks. The “formal” is an observation with the principal that determines your career trajectory on a year-to-year basis.
“I hope it went better than I thought it did,” the observed teacher says.
“I’m sure it was fine—“
“I’ve just got these kids who wanna pull the race card! They called me racist for talking about Jim Crow. I swear they did it just because she was in there.”
“Oh, my God. What did you say?”
“I said they were ignorant to say I’m racist for trying to show them how far we’ve come since then.” I’m afraid any “plausible deniability” concerning the state of American race relations evaporated in a flash of white light last night. “I cried it out at home,” the teacher continues, “and my parents took me to Red Lobster. I got lobster, crab legs, mussels . . .” She continues to list her many comforts. One of the older faculty chuckles and waves off the formally-observed newbie. She turns around, and sets her sights on myself.
Can you believe this?” she says. I am a newbie too, so it’s rare for her to ask me anything.
“No,” I say, not looking away from my screen. Eye contact remains challenging.
“I haven’t felt this way since ’68 or ’72,” she says. “If you didn’t live through Nixon, you just don’t know how bad this can get. I can’t believe so many people would elect this guy just to be anti-establishment.” She grew up in the sixties, and knows what real anti-establishment looks like: black panthers, white elephants, thousand-pound gorillas and the purple rhetoric of “the people.”
“Yeah, and this might be the only anti-establishment thing they actually do,” I reply. The older faculty member laughs but says nothing in return. I guess the hope in my last statement didn’t translate.
The journalism teacher enters with a bundle of newspapers, the first edition of the new “Siberian Sentinel.” I might be a sentinel in Siberia pretty soon, dug up in a foxhole and frozen over with someone else’s assault rifle at low-ready. That’s only if the Next Civil War doesn’t get to me first. Whether I own it or not, I fear there will be a gun in my hand sooner rather than later.
“Would anyone like the first edition of the new school paper?” she asks. She proudly tells us they will be distributed to different periods throughout the day, so everyone is assured of getting one. I ask for a single copy, and she smiles at me when she hands it over. The headline reads: “How Will the Next President Make or Break America?” This must have been printed before we knew who won the sweepstakes.
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Jared Alan Smith was born in Orlando and lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches Exceptional Student Education English Language Arts. His nonfiction has appeared in Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas series and his fiction in Issue 19 of Hinchas de Poesia. His chapbook Sure Shot: Collected Assays in Pulp is available here. He is easier to find on Facebook than in real life.