Havarsham was a third grader of impeccable character. He did not talk over the teacher like Fatima and Ashley. He did not have a tattoo or piercings like Zeke. He did not hide in the bathroom like Jeremy or run in the halls like Jimmy. He did not scream, "We're all gonna die!" at the first sound of a fire drill. He did not, and probably could not, remove the hard drive from the office secretary's computer while waiting to see the principal. He was never late and never, ever budged in line. Until one day, when a marker fell out of a box labeled ART. Havarsham picked up the marker and drew a big, bold F.
Such is a nondescript day at Amy L. King Elementary School. It is a red-bricked building, sporting a great oak tree over shaded front doors. Across a tiny but well-manicured lawn, a lone yellow bus often awaits at the curb, sustaining the air with that familiar scent of worn diesel. The windows along the walls offer a parade of hanging honors. Masterpiece works of 8 X 3 = 24 and 72 ÷ 9 = 8 wrestle for a place to proudly display "SUPER" stickers for all those who pass by. But like other precious works of art, these are safely kept behind steel-mesh cages and bullet-proof locks, even the ones on the second floor. And every day, high above it all, though at half mast more often than not, waves a flag of white stars and red stripes.
Upon the wall, just inside the front doors, guests are first met by a larger-than-life image of Dr. Amy L. King. Her piercing blue eyes have the power to penetrate the soul, to shock unsuspecting visitors in their tracks. The plaque beneath her image does not say what remarkable feats of education she must have accomplished in order to have a school named after her, only that she must have done it by 1964. Upon closer examination of her image, if one dares to do so, once the initial shock subsides of course, one would notice that her accusing gaze is not leveled at the visitor, but at a directory upon the opposite wall beholding a list of classroom teachers and an over-size map. Ms. Stoll's third grade class is on the second floor at the far north end of the school.
The yellowed tiles upon the floor are original, tread by the footsteps of five decades of students. The yellowed walls have echoed the shouts of four generations of children. These days, they can often be heard to echo the shouts of Brady Turbowicz, a first-grader who frequents the undersides of tables, out of arms' reach, to say to the world: "Chicken Nuggets!"
On mornings when the weather is warm, flocks of children can be seen around the building. They run, they jump, they fight and scream. On mornings when the weather is cold, these same children are herded into a gymnasium where they run, they jump, they fight and scream. While there is no official uniform, every student's wardrobe comes complete with a fleece hoodie-sweater. This particular kind of sweater has many advantages. It can be warm. It can come in many colors: black, gray, and pink are the most common. It can be adorned with the images of the most popular cartoon characters or boy-band heart-throbs. And most importantly, especially during times of severe stress, in such a very public place, it can offer a place to hide.
Wearing the hood in class is officially forbidden by a rule passed down from our forefathers, time immemorial, which states: "Thou shalt not wear thy hat inside of doors, lest God smite thee." Yet, on any particular day, and especially during test season—which happens near the end of March—a naïve visitor might mistake a class of students for a gathering of Pagan Druids.
Such describes the everyday culture of King Elementary, nestled between the urban projects and the interstate mousetrap. However, there is one day known to every child when things are different. During "Spirit Week" there is a day between Sports Team Day and Pajama Day. One day when children wear their hoods on their chests. One day when children are allowed to sit on their desks with their feet on their chairs. One day when Clarissa is allowed to say her name backwards: Backwards Day.
It just so happened that on this particular Backwards Day, Ms. Stoll could not get out of her bed. At 3 A.M., Mr. Andrey Spinoza received a call. At 4 A.M., he showered and matched some socks out of his dryer. At 6 A.M., he got into his car, and at 7 A.M., he tripped over his own feet while trying to escape the watchful gaze of Dr. King.
Mr. Andrey Spinoza, a recent graduate of the state college teacher education program, had been in possession of his teaching license for only two weeks. He had spent all of his time, money, and effort over the last four years into getting that license. The state Department of Education had taken six months to process his information, but within an hour of opening their letter, his resume had a shiny new title: Certified K-12 Teacher.
He placed his pristine leather briefcase upon Ms. Stoll's desk. He took a deep breath and soaked up the ambience of the room. There were thirty-some little desks, each with its own miniature chair. The walls were covered by a montage of posters, bright colors, alphabet phonetics, and pictures with baby animals of all sorts. Principal Dorothy Jimenez, a woman of stoic and silent force, entered the room and placed her hand out for Andrey to shake. Andrey saw the hand first, and then the principal. It took a moment for him to recognize the situation, and then he shook her hand.
"I am Dorothy Jimenez, the assistant principal here at King."
"Andrey Spinoza," he replied.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice. Ms. Stoll has left you some notes. She is quite thorough, so you should have no problem." Principal Jimenez lifted a pack of paper from the desk and handed it to Andrey. He flipped through them, all twelve pages, single spaced.
"Our population of students can be challenging at times," she continued. "They don't always adapt to new situations well. They like routine, so if I were to give you advice, it would be to keep your lessons on the board and always, always, keep the exit tickets on the board at all times. Do that, and you should have a good day. Your students should begin to arrive, soon. Any questions I can answer for you, now?"
Nothing came to Andrey's thoughts. He shrugged a shoulder. "I'm happy to be here."
"Good! If you need anything, call my cell or the office. Numbers are in the packet."
"Thank you," she replied, turned, and left to continue her morning rounds.
A bell echoed throughout the halls. Two minutes later, Havarsham entered the room. He silently walked to his desk and sat, hands folded, to wait.
"Hi!" Andrey sparked.
Havarsham raised his hand and waited.
"Yes?" Andrey called.
"Hi." the boy finally said.
"I'm Mr. Spinoza."
"You should write that on the board," the boy said politely.
"You're right, I should." Andrey turned around to the board and began a search for a marker.
"They're in the locked drawer in the desk. Key is in a magnetic holder under the desk."
"Thank you. What's your name?"
"My name is Havarsham."
"Very nice to meet you," Andrey exclaimed. Havarsham said nothing, just watched as Andrey liberated the markers, and the hand sanitizer gel, and the rulers, and the calculators, and the rubber bands, and the paperclips, and the stapler. Over the next two minutes, an assortment of third-graders entered the room, laughing, talking, and playing. Andrey watched them all circulate and eventually migrate to their respective desks.
Another bell rang, and the students quieted for the new person at the head of the room to speak. Andrey was encouraged by their courteous show of respect. He began, "My name is Mr. Spinoza." He wrote his name on the board.
A boy from the third row raised his hand. Andrey saw that the name "Justin" was written on his desk. "Yes, Justin?"
"Is it Mr. Spinoza or Ms. Spinoza?"
"I am male," Andrey responded cheerily, "so I am Mister."
"It's Ms. Spinoza," came a voice from the back of the room. "He's a man trapped in a woman's body! No, wait!"
"No, you moron, Ms. Spinoza is a woman trapped in a man's body!"
"It's Mr. Spinoza," Andrey tried to correct the class, but the conversation had already moved on.
"I'm not the moron! I scored higher than you on the last reading test!"
"Because you cheated!"
"I did not!"
Andrey marched into the middle of the classroom where he was stopped by a larger girl with her hand raised. Her desk read Crystal, and her eyes were caked with glitter. "Mr. Spinoza?"
"I like you. You're cute."
"Thank you. How do I get control of this class?"
Crystal shrugged her shoulders. Another boy, Walter, blonde with a bowl haircut, stood up and ran to the class bookshelf. "I know how to tell!"
"And stop!" Andrey shouted. The class did get quiet. "Is this how you always behave?"
Havarsham answered, "No. Maybe it's just you."
That was when Walter returned with a copy of Worldly Geography. He opened the book to a picture of topless tribeswomen from Africa nursing their young. "Do you like these?"
"Where did you get that?" Andrey's face twisted incredulously.
"Over there," Walter pointed.
Andrey took the book, closed it, and placed it on the highest shelf of the tallest cabinet. "We need to get to math." He took the teacher packet and searched it for the first lesson. "Math books, page one-hundred. You have ten seconds."
The room sighed with a chorus of "Oh my God. Really?"
"Really," Andrey answered. One student in a back corner fell out of his chair. Another, a girl named Jess, threw her book to the floor. Andrey approached the scene. "What happened?"
"It fell," Jess pouted.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"Nothing I can do about it. It's burning in Hell. My math book is burning in Hell!"
Andrey, turned to his teacher packet to see if Ms. Stoll had left any instructions for this situation. She had! The typed page said, "Worksheet 101. Groups of three. They know their groups."
"Page 101!" Andrey shouted, "You know your groups!"
Crystal stood up. "I can't."
Walter jumped to his feet. "Zeke and Crystal are in a group, but they broke up last night. He's her ex."
The boy, who had fallen out of his chair earlier, finally untangled his feet from the disaster and stood up with his hand raised. "Mr. Spinoza, My name is Jeremy, I need to go to the bathroom."
"You'd better let him go!" warned another voice, "Do you see that stain on the carpet under his desk?"
"Be quick," Andrey said quickly. Jeremy sped out the door. Andrey turned to face the rest of the class. "Page 101. Are there any questions?" The question sowed an acre of hands. "About the assignment?" The hands went down. The room got quiet. One by one, over the next ten minutes, little pointed hoods rose to cover little faces. He began to truly enjoy the newfound silence, but the absurdity of covered faces forced him to speak. "Why are all of your sweaters on backwards?"
"It's Backwards Day."
Andrey's eyes shot wide open at the girl who said that. "Seriously inappropriate!"
"No it's not," the girl returned. "That's her name backwards. Isn't that right, Clarissa?"
"Mm-hmm," Clarissa agreed. "I can't help it that's what my mom named me."
"Don't say that again. Not in here?"
"Okay," the girls agreed.
"Who is finished with the assignment?" No hands went up. Andrey nodded, but more than half of the class had covered faces. He searched the notes until he happened across the word "candy". There was told of a bag of candy in the big drawer of the desk. Andrey went to that drawer, found that candy, grabbed a handful of chocolates, and then slowly paced to the center of the room. "When you finish your worksheet, I will put a piece of candy into your hood. It has to stay there until recess, and then, at recess, it's yours." The idea worked. Hoods came down, and students went to work.
Recess did not come too soon.