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“You let up for an instant and it’s all over.”
She doesn’t wear makeup anymore. She used to, once upon a time. Her face was pristine, full of idealism, back when she used to care. Now it is gaunt, aged beyond her thirty-odd years. Her lips tense as a student bursts through the door, bragging loud enough to topple a nearby janitor about a necklace he stole from a classmate. Her back protests as she rises from her swivel chair behind her desk.
I stand and watch, silently.
It was obvious that Ms. Cunningham had drawn society’s shorter straws most of her life. Every now and again she’d have to hire a sub because her chiropractor’s schedule conflicted with her own. All the instruction sheets she left for her stand-ins had “Bring earplugs!” italicized at the top. I’d had to buy a pair just to be able to think.
Her eyes, over the previous months, had become more and more bloodshot by the day.
Her ring finger was bare.
A desk hitting the floor snaps me out of my musings and I see Ms. Cunningham smile at a young man who leers at her in return. I don’t say anything, but we both know she smiles like she’s begging for a reason to.
She turns back to me and runs a hand through her disheveled hair. Dimly, I hear an expletive being flung across the room.
“I thought I did everything right.”
A boy yells something about not needing this and slams the door behind him as he leaves. She winces.
“Don’t know where I messed up.”
A paper airplane lodges itself in her hair as she says this. Shortly after she carries it delicately to the recycling, the bell rings.
Then comes the deluge.
“Please quiet down—”
“Marissa, I didn’t take your—”
“When are we going to use—”
“Why you talkin’ to me—”
“I don’t wanna do—”
“God, you’re such a—”
“Y’all, try to listen—”
I hear all this through my earplugs and try my best to drown out the noise.
Finally, the bell rings again. A young lady gives Ms. Cunningham the finger as she exits. I stay behind until everyone leaves and utter my first words of the hour.
“Will you be okay?”
She sighs as the first student of her next class stomps through the door.
“It’s hard—Chris, spit out your gum!—it’s hard…”
She takes a breath like she’s drowning.
“It’s hard to think well of yourself when you’re treated like this.” She flaps a flaccid hand at the demolished room and leans over me for a sponge to clean up a desk that has a curse written on it in Sharpie.
“But I’ll be okay. I—have to be.”
She walks me to the door and clutches at the small of her back.
“Take care,” she whispers, smiling weakly.
I want to say something but can’t figure out what.
She sets her shoulders back, turns around, and heads into battle. Spitballs fly from nowhere to hit her face and students mutter insults under their breath before the door closes.
God bless that woman, I think as I shoulder my backpack and turn around.
It’s a prayer more than anything, though God became a bedtime story years ago.
God bless that unknown soldier.