Johnny sat on the blue, tattered carpet of his third grade classroom. He listened as Jessica gave her report on Woody Guthrie. She was singing a little country song, with her little voice, and Johnny had no idea who Woody Guthrie was. He just sat, un-tying and re-tying his shoelaces over and over again, proud of this new skill he’d picked up last week. He no longer had to face the ridicules of the Velcro-shoe-life. He was a lace-up kid now, and he had never been prouder.
When Jessica’s report finished, she sat back down on the rug, avoiding a booger Caitlin had spread across the carpet just a second before. Caitlin wasalways spreading boogers. Johnny had a crush on her, and he didn’t know why. She was exceptionally pretty, her freckles spotted perfectly on the bridge of her nose, but even Johnny knew – at 8 years old – that the booger spreading should have been a strong turn-off.
The children were seated around the perimeter of the carpet, Ms. Kent at the front of the room with her easel and her floor-grazing peasant skirt swallowing half of her body in its flaky, olive green fabric. “Okay, kids,” she began. “Let’s move on to math. We’ll have three more ‘My Favorite Musician’ reports tomorrow.” Johnny took a moment to re-consider who this Woody Guthrie guy was, and how he couldn’t possibly be Jessica’s favorite musician. She was eight, and it was 2001. His wonderings were interrupted, though, by the sound of a loud thud against the radiator at the other side of the carpet. “Henry!” Ms. Kent shouted. “Henry, get your hands off Jack.”
Johnny’s classmates were shoving their pintsized bodies at one another, banging up against the clattering radiator. Their feet tripped over the pillows on the floor beneath them, which was exactly what they were fighting over. The pillows were at the heart of every single third grade argument at Dandall Elementary School. They were golden beacons of comfy, fabric-torn fluff. If a student was lucky enough to get the “pillow corner” of the rug, he would be instantly shrouded in a film of sour envy from his classmates. Johnny always tried to get the pillows for him and Caitlin, but he never tried too hard, knowing there were greater tings in the world worth fighting for than old, communal pillows.
Henry and Jack continued to push and shove, rolling around on the ground. Ms. Kent, with her brittle, chapped hands, tried to tear the boys away from each other. Most of the other kids in the class were cheering, Caitlin was crying, and Jessica tried to sing the room back into peace with her little rendition of This Land Is Your Land.
“This land is yoooouur land,” she sang. “This land is my…”
“Jack, let go!” Ms. Kent yelled.
“I’m serious, boys! Stop it.”
“…to the New York island…” Jessica was still singing.
“I’ve had enough of this!” Ms. Kent shouted in a voice that was inconceivably loud in relation to her frail, bony frame. Johnny jumped up from the rug, away from Ms. Kent, as if she were a hot stove. With a punctuated tug, she picked Jack up off of Henry’s thrashing body. There was a collective gasp from the entire class. Johnny stood on the tile floor outside the perimeter of the carpet, his perfectly tied shoelaces shivering in fright. Ms. Kent placed Jack back on the ground, took a defensive stance between him and Henry, and breathed deeply. Her salt-n-pepper hair was a mess. “Boys,” she began to scold them. “Inever want to see anything like this again.” Ms. Kent panted. “So help me God, I will take those pillows, and throw them out the –”
The classroom door slammed. Stillness interrupted Ms. Kent’s rant. Just inside the door stood Johnny’s father, in his pristinely cut businessman suit. “Johnny,” he said, looking as if every ounce of blood had been drained from his body. “We have to go home now.” He took a couple of soft steps into the classroom. “I have to take you home.” Johnny followed his dad’s eyes, as they shot to Ms. Kent, and then to the carpet full of children, all frozen in bewilderment.
“Where’s Mom?” Johnny asked.
“Come on, Johnny,” his dad motioned toward the door. Johnny didn’t ask again. He knew to trust his parents before anyone else. And so he crossed the classroom, looking toward the motionless tableau of his classmates. He met eyes with Caitlin who quickly withdrew her finger from her nose and smiled a little bit. Johnny smiled back at her, followed his dad out the door, and hoped – whatever this impromptu exit meant – that he’d still see them tomorrow.