Monday, April 1, 2013

Mike Heartz

Classroom Concierge
Fiction by Mike Heartz

Most students knew they never had a chance. If anyone had any kind of history fooling around in bathrooms—that was a definite red flag—it was an immediate disqualification. That pretty much wiped out half the class.
 “Mr. Thomas? How come you never let me be a messenger anymore?” Willy questioned, chewing on the nub he called a pencil. I had to be diplomatic enough early to show that the job was open to all. Some wanted a chance to prove to the new regime that they were up to the challenge, and that was perfectly fine with me.  
“Willy, do you remember the last time I let you do something?”
“I really thought there was a fire in the garbage can.”
“First off, you weren’t even supposed to be in the bathroom. Second, urinating into the garbage can was not a good idea. There wasn’t even any smoke or fire!”
“Yeah, but something in there stunk real bad.”
“You were in the bathroom at the end of the day, Willy! It always stinks like that at the end of the day! And when did something stinking ‘real bad’ mean that it was on fire? You know what? Never mind. Willy—I will be picking someone else who I can trust to not pee in a garbage can when all I want them to do is deliver a note two classrooms away.”
“I didn’t pee in a garbage can and I still don’t get to do anything anymore?” a dejected Marcus whispered under his breath.
“You’re right Marcus, you didn’t pee in a garbage can. All you did was go through everyone’s lockers in the hallway trying to find…what was it?”
Burying his face in his arms, he suddenly remembered the “Lunchables” incident.
 “That’s right my friend. And all I asked you to do was go next door to deliver a message.  A bit of advice Marcus, never spend ten minutes when the job required should take no more than thirty seconds. That ten minutes was a big tip off that you were up to no good. Hopefully we learned a lesson on that one. If you’re gonna do something—do it quick.”
“But I never get to do anything!” cried out a despondent Terry.
“Now Terry, that’s just not true. Don’t you remember last week when I had you find Mr. Laprosio when Deonshaye threw up all over Diesha? And didn’t I let you walk both of them down to the nurse?”
“But I got throw up all over me. That wasn’t fun.”
“Well I didn’t tell you to hold both of their hands, did I? I still don’t know why you did that. They were clearly covered in vomit.”
One student may work for one teacher and not for the next. Opening the job up to all showed the class that I was fair and diplomatic and they could figure it out Lord of the Flies style and the process took care of itself. None of this could be verbalized; they must all see for themselves why this one particular person rose above them. They were appointing him or her themselves.
The job description was all-encompassing. Not only were they expected to learn my personal nuances and quirks—of which there were many—but they also had to be looked upon as a classroom liaison between them and myself. The duties were immense.
Her name was Almony Bean. I had word from her old kindergarten teacher that she was the one, but she had to prove her chops with me—nothing is given. Most of the kids knew she was the clear-cut favorite being together in kindergarten, so most didn’t even bother applying.
Almony was the best assistant I have had. She was one of the smartest girls in the class—wise beyond her years. She was required to mature faster because of her family situation. Instead of playing with her friends after school, she was holed up in a small apartment making cheese sandwiches for her and her grandmother. I never heard her complain. Always full of happiness and optimism, her relationship with her mother was almost sisterly. Her father was virtually non-existent. He would show up periodically when the time was right for him and exit just as quickly—being there long enough for Almony to know what she was missing. 
Her mother was unbelievably strong and caring and made Almony her number one priority. She worked two jobs just to keep the apartment they were in, but had a lot of help from her own mother to bridge the gap between the bus dropping her off and when she finished her second job waiting tables. Her mother appreciated the encouragement and attention I gave Almony and whenever she saw me, always told me how much she talked about me. Said it was good for her to have a consistent male role model in her life. I told her I was willing to help in any way I could but to think of me as a role model was stretching it. She laughed. I was serious.  
Almony had more common sense than most adults and that made things easier for me and her classmates. If I ever had a concept the kids weren’t picking up I would ask a few students to explain what I was trying to say—knowing they wouldn’t be able to assimilate it—and then call on her to describe it in a kid-friendly language they could understand. It didn’t happen every day or even every week, but when I needed it, I knew she would translate it perfectly for me. And if she couldn’t do it it was back to the drawing board for me—because I sure as shit had to attack the concept from another angle.   
She knew how to read the moment and people’s moods. She knew how to react in situations that other six or seven year olds couldn’t. She was book smart and street smart and people smart. She may have been in the first grade, but she was smarter and more pleasant to be around than the vast majority of people I knew.
Every now and again if I find out a certain student really likes a book, I’ll go out and get another book by the same author and stuff it in their desk—with the understanding that we don’t bring it up so everyone won’t be expecting a book in their desk the next day. 
When I bought a book for Almony, I didn’t even have to call her up to explain the procedure. Only three days later did she broach the subject of the book when she came up to my desk.
“You were right, Mr. Thomas. This was a good book.”
“I thought you’d like it. It was only like four bucks.”
“I told my mom that you bought me a book and she said you were the best teacher I ever had.”
“Well you’ve only had one other teacher so far Almony, tell her that.”
“I did.”
Almony was especially helpful to me in the day-to-day operations the classroom needed to get by. If anyone ever complained that I favored her, I could always point out the latest two or three people who were sent happily to the office to beg for more rubber bands.
Almony was saved for the prime missions. Whether covert or acting on my behalf, she was entirely trusted and consistently successful. She knew what I wanted—or would want and acted accordingly. When I needed staples and was out of them in my own personal supplies, she knew where to get them—Mr. Connell. She knew not to go to Mrs. Wymar because she was always asking me to fill her stapler and never ask Mrs. Patrick as she carried the kind that I didn’t like.
“Almony, I need staples. Pronto, please.”
Shooting out of her chair in full assistant mode—no smile with a sense of urgency—she assessed the situation instantly, “Okay, but I saw Mr. Connell walk by with his kids to go to recess.”
Shit—sorry. Are you serious?”
“Yeah? They always go out after their lunch and they eat right after us so….”
Almony was one of the few people that I never doubted. She was honest—if she didn’t know something, she would say it, not try to bullshit.
Resigned once again to her unfailing knowledge, I gave in. “Okay okay okay, you’re right…. I guess go ask Mrs. Patrick.”
“Mrs. Patrick? But you don’t like her staples! They have that small ridge in the middle.  You like the ones that are straight across.”
“I know. I know. But we’ve gotta take this Science test later and you know I like to have all the papers stapled together now or when they’re turned in it’ll be a mess. These kids can’t put their papers together in order and then I gotta spend fifteen minutes straightening them out and—”
“I know where he keeps his staples.”
“Mr. Connell?”
“He keeps them on his chalk tray so I don’t have to open his desk or anything.  And he never locks his room.”
“Alright—but normally we would wait. I don’t want anyone to think we’re—you’re–stealing anything out of his room. But this is an emergency. Be quick like a ninja. And if anyone sees you by his door—”
“I’ll just keep walking to the stairs like that time Mr. Maddox saw me going into Mrs. Patrick’s room to steal her globe.”
Borrowing…we’re borrowing her globe. And I’m not done with it yet. And I won’t be for a very long time. But we’re borrowing her globe.”
“But you said she broke yours a couple years ago and she never replaced it and that we were gonna ‘equal out the universe’ or something like that and we waited for her to leave.”
“Almony, never mind that. Here’s a note. It should cover anything that may happen. You just tell anyone—a teacher that is—that Mr. Thomas told you to get staples from Mr. Connell’s chalk tray. If a student asks you what you’re doing, just tell them it’s a secret mission, and say no more.”
“Okay. Should I go now?”
“Yes, and hurry. I want to get outside before the test. Good luck.”
She walked with purpose through the door and was back in less than two minutes with two whole rows of staples.
“Nice work, Almony! Any problems?” Hiding one row in my desk, I quickly stapled the evidence away on the test papers. It was quite a coup.
 “No. They were right where he always keeps them. His room smells. But Mrs. Sandler saw me and I think she saw me coming out of his room and asked what I was stealing for you this time. But she didn’t sound mad.”
“Yes, well, Mrs. Sandler knows my operation. And didn’t we do something for her a month ago that she needed done quietly?
“I got her three boxes of Kleenex from the nurse’s office on a day the nurse wasn’t here.”
That’s right, and that was no small feat with the nurse’s office being right next to the office. And just when her whole class came down with the heebie jeebies at the same time.  Plus, we replaced those Kleenex before the nurse came back. So we didn’t steal them, we borrowed them.”
“I know. We always replace.”
“Always. But when we need something right away, we gotta do what we gotta do.”
“Except for that globe.”
“Almony, she never replaced that globe she broke. That globe is ours.”


“Almony where did I put my…”
One of the worst feelings was realizing that her chair was still upside down on her desk five minutes after the bell rang.
“Who rides the bus with Almony?” I shouted in panic.
Idly sharpening a pencil at his seat, Terry raised his hand. “I do.”
“Was she on it?”
“Last night she was. I don’t know if she was on it this morning. I had to sit up front.”
“Did anyone see her at breakfast?”
Silence. I called the office as a last resort. “Kathy—is my Almony down there?”
“I don’t see her. Sorry.”
Bolting from my desk, I walked next door. “Almony’s absent today. She’s never out and she’s never late.”
Ms. Wymar looked as apologetic as if a loved one had just died. She knew what that meant. “Oh. That sucks. I’m sorry. Maybe she’ll be late,” she offered.
Her classroom’s version of Almony, DeVante, was in full concierge mode early—collecting the previous night’s homework and taking lunch count. She looked tenderly at Devante—maybe fully appreciating him for the first time. Devante was good. He was dependable and had an unbelievable amount of common sense, but was almost humorless in my book. He never really got my jokes. He knew when to laugh. But he didn’t really mean it. Almony got them, even the complex joke-within-a-joke jokes and I could always make her chuckle—real chuckles—not teacher’s pet chuckles.
Devante was no Almony.
I raised my eyebrows and half-smiled in agreement and slowly crawled back to my Almony-free room.
She showed no sign of sickness yesterday! How could she do this to me? I don’t even know the page numbers we’re on in any subject and my lesson plans on my desk are basically fake—at best mere suggestions. 
I didn’t even know the passwords for the class computers anymore. Who was going to remind me when the right amount of nights had passed so I can have pizza again for dinner?
And what the hell was I going to do if I needed staples?
I turned around in my chair to watch Mr. Laprosio wipe down his mower for the third time this week and contemplated throwing in a movie after lunch and recess. What was the point? It almost seemed like there wasn’t any point in trying to make the day work. It could be done of course. But it wouldn’t feel right—me having to do everything.
The class started chuckling and snickering under its breath as I stared out the window.  Turning around to ask who farted, Almony stood before me holding me a late slip.
 “My god, where were you? I thought you were absent!” I whispered across the desk.
            “I missed the bus and my mom’s car wouldn’t start again. We had to wait for our neighbor to wake up and ask her for a ride.”
            “Did you have breakfast?”
            “No. But I’m not hungry. I can wait until lunch.”
            Throwing her a granola bar from the stash in my desk I admitted, “I thought you weren’t coming. You know my rule.”
            “I know. I told my mom. ‘I’m not allowed to miss school unless somebody dies.’ She already knew that. She said you’d be freaking out.”
            Taming my heart rate, I said, “Well, I don’t know about freaking out but I’m sure glad you could finally grace us with your presence, Ms. Bean.” I smiled. “Now go sit down and get to work.”
            While unloading her book bag she reminded me, “Don’t forget it’s Picture Day so we’re scheduled to go after Reading.” 
            “What?! Today? Oh man…I hate Picture Day!”
            I left the room once more and rushed next door. “She’s here. Just showed up.”
            “Oh thank god. That would have sucked.” Ms. Wymar exhaled for both of us, knowing the burden would have been on her to handle an even bigger load of my needs and wants.
            “Did you know today is Picture Day?” I asked incredulously. “Almony just told me.”
“Yes, Mr. Thomas. I thought you could have figured that one out for yourself with all the signs in the hallway and reminders in our mailboxes all week.”
            “Well I didn’t.”
            As I turned out of her room she stated the obvious, “Well thank god Almony decided to come in today.”
I turned right into a Picture Day poster on the opposite wall.
            Thank god for Almony is right.

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