May is always a full month, but this year it seemed more full than usual. Despite the fact that COVID-19 has, in many ways, made the world feel smaller, it can’t stop time from marching on, nor can it stop people from celebrating its passage, albeit in new ways.
This May marked twenty-five years since I graduated from high school. I watched online from 200 miles away as my niece accepted her high school diploma and concluded her own strange senior year.
This May marked ten years since my husband and I got married. We celebrated at home with takeout from a favorite restaurant and lots of laughter and a few tears as we watched our wedding video and looked through a box of old letters and photos and other relationship memorabilia.
And this May also marked the twentieth anniversary of my first year of teaching.
This particular milestone snuck up on me. Since I took time off in the middle of my career, I haven’t actually taught for twenty years. I just finished my seventeenth year of teaching seventh grade. But it was twenty years ago, in May of 2000, when I said goodbye to my very first group of students ever.
A lot of teachers have horror stories about their first year in the classroom, but not me. I loved it. I had great kids that year, and I bonded well with them. In retrospect, that was probably because I was a just a kid too, only ten years older than my students. Now that I’m in my forties, it seems a little odd to put a 22-year-old in charge of the education and well-being of fifty pre-teens, but I think I did an okay job.
To celebrate this life landmark, I read the notes written in my 1999-2000 yearbook. Then I reconnected with several of those first year “kids” (now in their thirties) on Facebook and posted a bunch of old pictures of them in their most awkward stage of life. It was so much fun seeing them now and watching them squeal at the photos of their former selves. I really loved those kids. I still have little gifts that some of them gave me and notes and drawings. All treasures.
As much fun as it was to reminisce with my former students, it made me more sad about what I missed out on with this year’s kids. I haven’t been as torn up about the strange ending to the school year as a lot of teachers. I’m not sure why. I think I was just so focused on the reason for the school closures and the anxiety over keeping everyone safe that not getting the last few weeks of lessons in didn’t seem like a big loss. Plus, I live in the neighborhood where I teach, so I’ll run into some of my kids at the park and the grocery store (when I start going back inside the grocery store).
But now I’m lamenting the losses. The lost conversations and end-of-year countdowns and talent shows and final reflections. And the yearbook. I bought one this year, and I’ll get it eventually, but it will be too late for signatures, too late to see who writes the funniest comment and who surprises me with a heartfelt note about something I didn’t realize made an impact.
There are other losses too. This is the first time in seventeen years of teaching that I didn’t get to share S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders with my students, didn’t get to gasp at their profound observations and cringe at the skits and videos they made of the novel’s violent scenes. (Every year, I’m convinced I’m going to get fired because of students acting out knife fights in the hallway with paper switchblades that I told them not to make or sharpened pencils that I have to confiscate. They learn a lot though, I promise, and have a lot of fun, and no one has ever been seriously injured.)
It took looking back twenty years to really see the past few months.
Although the end of the year fizzled out in a less-than-exciting way, the rest of the school year went well. It was filled with hard work and reading and writing and stories and struggles and, as usual when you work with middle schoolers, some really interesting moments.
Here are a few that stood out in the 2019-2020 school year:
How My School Year Started
* Journal entry from August 20, 2019 *
This morning before work, I was getting ready to leave and microwaving a sausage & biscuit for breakfast when Hubby came into the kitchen to take my first day picture. He peered into the microwave (which was on) and said, “There’s nothing in there.”
“Ha,” I said. “If that were true, that would be really weird.”
Hubby looked at me funny. Then he opened the microwave and showed me that nothing was inside. There, on the counter, sat my cold sausage & biscuit.
Before school, I was on duty in the commons with E, politely telling students to put their cell phones away and keeping an eye on a group of 8th grade boys who seemed moments away from becoming a mosh pit. Exactly two seconds before the principal released 1,300 kids to stampede to class, a girl dropped her glass water bottle on the tile floor. It shattered, sending water and glass shards into a huge, dangerous puddle. E and I blocked the spill with our bodies, yelling, “Go around us! Broken glass! Watch your step!” to 1,300 stampeding kids. Then we FOLLOWED THE EXACT PROTOCOL AS OUTLINED IN THE SAFETY TRAINING VIDEO FOR CLEANING UP BROKEN GLASS. THE END.
Possibly the Weirdest Moment of My Entire Teaching Career
* Journal entry from September 24, 2019 *
Today, three days after seeing It: Chapter 2 with my family, I was teaching my 5th period class of 33 students, plus me, plus my co-teacher, plus my college intern. I was standing on the side of the room, and every student’s eyes were focused on me when a boy on the far side of the room pulled a red lipstick out of his pocket and proceeded to draw lines from the corners of his mouth, up his cheeks, over his eyes to create the Pennywise clown makeup. (!!!!!) I raised my eyebrows at him and shook my head in a subtle but assertive, “No, uh-uh,” sort of way. The boy blushed, pulled the collar of his shirt up over his head and pulled it down over his face, wiping off all the makeup in a single motion. I glanced around. No one was reacting in any way. A student had transitioned into a clown in the middle of my lesson and transitioned back into a boy again in a classroom of 36 people and NO ONE SAW IT BUT ME.
You cannot make this stuff up.
A Proud Moment
There was a student I didn’t know who had a locker right outside my classroom. At the start of the year, he had locker trouble. He lost his lock. Then he lost his combination. I helped him once and I saw another teacher help him on a different day. Eventually, he just stopped locking his locker. It drove me crazy. Sometimes he didn’t even close it. So on October 16th, I wrote this note and put it in his locker when no one was looking. Later, I saw him find it, look around suspiciously, and read it.
From that day forward, his locker was closed and locked every single day. I don’t think he ever knew who put the note there.
An Unfortunate But Portentous Moment
* Journal entry from January 10, 2020 *
During my grammar lesson today, I accidentally demonstrated how communicable diseases spread.
Students were labeling parts of speech in practice sentences. I went around with a marker and put a check on students’ papers that had every label correct. Those students in turn were deputized as teachers, got a marker, and walked around checking other students’ answers. The students they checked did the same. It was a wonderful, engaging, cooperative lesson that my coworker came up with, and it had worked beautifully all day.
Until 7th period.
In 7th period, I made a mistake on the first student’s paper I checked. He had an error I didn’t notice. Unknowingly, he passed his diseased answers on to others, and they did the same. By the time the problem came to my attention, it was too late. Half the class was already infected. We all just stared at each other, not knowing what to do, until student zero said, “It’s like the coronavirus.”
It turned out to be a great cross-curricular science-related discussion and a really terrible grammar lesson. Oops.
[Note: When student zero mentioned the coronavius, everyone laughed, including me. This was mid-January. The term was just a buzz word. I barely even knew what it was at the time.]
A Funny Moment
* Journal entry from January 16, 2020 *
The worksheet said: Write a sentence about a tiger using a semicolon.
The student wrote: The tiger used a semicolon as a weapon.
Good memories, all of them. But none of these memories could have happened if I hadn’t started somewhere. I’m so grateful I had such a good first year of teaching. The last thing in my journal from that inaugural year is a list I made. Everything on it still holds true.
10 THINGS I LEARNED MY FIRST YEAR OF TEACHING
Decorating a classroom is more difficult than it looks.
Over-planning is much, much better than under-planning.
Be very flexible and calm and let things roll off your back.
Don’t always proclaim a winner in games.
Juggling is a great attention-getter.
It’s important to write legibly on the board.
Students mirror their teacher, so enthusiasm and smiling are essential.
Teachers should be required to take at least one theater class in college.
Gaining respect has little to do with age or experience.
Be able to laugh at yourself in front of large groups.
Done and done, especially #10. Now to go brush up on my juggling skills.
This week, my house has been acting like it’s October instead of January.
First, I noticed tiny hand prints in the high window above my front door. Raccoons, you say? My money’s on gnomes. Either way, something’s been peeking in my window. Next I inherited this beautiful* new bird from my good friend Emily and promptly began to have nightmares about it chasing me. The bird’s name is Windcleaver now. I’m hoping that naming her will squelch her tendencies toward evil. Then I gave myself a mild heart attack when I looked out my peephole and saw the shadowy figure of a man-beast on my porch. It turned out to be some sort of fiendish reflection of the brass knocker, but I’m still half-convinced one of the creatures from The Fog was standing on my doorstep. Yesterday the dinosaur toy with the dead batteries awoke and growled at me, eyes flashing, from my closet. (That was unsettling.) And today I noticed that my tiny Grover figurine, who usually smiles sweetly at me from his perch in front of my German dictionary, was instead leaning forlornly against my Bible. He has not told me why.
*Apparently Windcleaver’s beauty is subjective. My husband seems to be plotting her demise.
These “amusing” little instances of inanimate objects coming to life and sinister visitors showing up at my door remind me of my first published short story. It appeared in Issue 12 of Dark Moon Digest, which came out last July.
If you’re up for it, grab a cup of something warm, turn the lights down low, and spend a few minutes reading “The Jack-in-the-Box”. Oh, and make sure your closet is securely closed first.
* * * * * * * * *
Jenna turned the little metal crank with the plastic handle.
Do doop, do doop, do doop DOOP doop do, do doop, do doop, do doooo doop…
The tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel” lifted haltingly into the air. The notes were dissonant, each landing with a soft plunk as Jenna turned the crank as slowly as possible, trying to see how close she could get to releasing the clown doll inside without actually letting him out.
Do doop… do doop…
Her little heart pounded with excitement. She felt sure that if she could just stop at the right moment, maybe she could see–
Jenna’s door banged open and she gasped, her fingers slipping from the handle. Her mother stood in the doorway, lips pursed, hands clenched into fists.
“Jenna, must you keep playing with that thing?” she growled.
Jenna looked down at the floor. “I like it.”
“You like it? Honey, you scream or shriek or gasp every time it pops up! How is that fun?” Her mother looked more frazzled than usual. Jenna noticed she had two more Band-aids on her arm.
“It just surprises me, that’s all.”
“Ha!” Her mother’s laugh made the little girl jump. “Surprises you? That is the most predictable toy in the world. You know exactly what is going to happen and exactly when it is going to happen. Every single time. And you have been playing it over and over again every night before bed for a whole week. How could that possibly still startle you?”
Jenna said nothing.
Her mother scratched at her neck with her right hand, leaving bright red streaks in the dry skin of her throat. Then she heaved a long sigh. “Let’s just get rid of it. Why don’t we?”
The ten-year-old girl looked her mother in the eye. “It was Dad’s,” she said in a soft voice.
Predictably, her mother stiffened. Her shoulders drew back and her chin jutted out sharply. She crossed her arms and cleared her throat. “Okay, fine. But that’s enough for tonight. Get to bed.”
“Okay, Mom. Let me just finish this one.” Jenna put her hand back on the handle and began to push. Then, glancing at her mother still in the doorway, she shifted slightly, turning the back of the box toward her mom.
Do doop… DOOP… doop do… POP!
Jenna and her mother both jumped slightly. She’d turned the crank too far. There he was––the clown doll. Just as expected.
Jenna finished out the last notes of the song and then carefully folded him back into the box and closed the lid with a click. “Goodnight, Momma,” she said and climbed into bed without offering her cheek to be kissed.
Her mother stood in the doorway another moment before leaving without a word.
In the dark, after her mother had gone, Jenna turned the old metal box over in her hands. The light was too dim now to see its images, but she knew them by heart after studying the thing for so many hours.
The box was colorful, or used to be, before the sun faded it during all those years it sat facing the window. The main color was blue. The lid was blue and the edges of all four sides. Within the blue, each side showed a different circus scene. On the back of the box, there was a red and white striped big top tent with a crowd of people in front, waiting to get inside. It was the least faded. On the left side was a ringmaster, wearing a top hat and tux, carrying a whip in his hand. On the right, there was a sideshow strong man, muscles bulging, holding a barbell high over his head. The front, which had faced the morning sun, was faded to pastels. It showed one car of a circus train with the heads of lions, elephants, and bears peeking up, smiling, over the top and through the windows. Jenna liked that side the best and wished it wasn’t so faded.
Inside the box was the clown. He gave a pretty powerful first impression when he made his appearance—all crazy hair and flailing arms, blue and yellow striped outfit and bright red smile––unfaded, hidden from the light, protected.
On closer inspection, he wasn’t very impressive at all. He had thin, cheap cloth for his clothes and a hard plastic head that was painted sloppily. His red mouth was not exactly where his mouth should be and part of the green of his hair smeared onto his forehead.
Jenna thought it was odd. The outside of the box was so pretty—or at least it had been—but the inside looked like it was slapped together without thought, without care. Maybe, she mused, you aren’t supposed to look at that part closely. Maybe you are supposed to scream and slam the lid back down quickly, not to stare or appreciate.
Jenna had looked closely, though, and she had seen something else. Her mother was wrong. This toy was not predictable at all.
She felt a little bit bad about manipulating her mom. Yes, the jack-in-the-box was Dad’s, but he’d never shown it to her, or let her play with it, or anything. Still, Jenna knew the mention of him would shake her mother, make her let Jenna keep it. Jenna knew it was mean to use her dad’s memory like that.
He’d been dead over a month, but her mother still could not hear his name without her muscles tightening, her teeth clenching. Based on the dark circles beneath her eyes, she wasn’t sleeping either. Then, there were the Band-aids. Her mom’s left arm had a new Band-aid every day. When the girl asked about them, her mother just mumbled something about a scratch.
Jenna could tell that her mom didn’t feel good, but she didn’t know what to do about it. She was having a hard enough time herself. She’d had to do a lot of growing up in the past few weeks. And she missed her father, too. Of course she did. She’d cried for a week straight after the funeral. Then, somehow, she had been able to accept his death. It was like she was all cried out.
But she still hurt. More than ever, she needed her mommy. She needed to be tucked into bed, to be hugged goodnight. Those days seemed to be over.
No, the jack-in-the-box wasn’t a gift from Dad. It was just something Jenna found after his office became her bedroom. The switch was necessary. Despite the fact that they were not superstitious people, no mother would want her young daughter sleeping in the same room where her father died.
But their home was small—no extra rooms to choose from—and selling the house was not an option. Not immediately, anyway. Not in the wake of the tragedy or until medical investigations had been finished and financial situations had been resolved. Yet, Jenna’s need to have a new bedroom was immediate. So, she moved into Dad’s office.
Rearranging the furniture gave her mother a purpose for a few days.––switch desk for bed, switch coats and file boxes for clothes and toys, switch law diplomas for gymnastics certificates. Then, her steam ran out and her crippling anxiety set in and the move was never truly finished.
Jenna lived in a bedroom that was almost hers, but not quite. The purple curtains that used to lift in the breeze remained on the old windows that were now never opened. Her books were still in the old room too—the room they didn’t go in anymore. The walls of her new room were still covered in dark, mustard-colored wallpaper. And there was still one large bookcase of Dad’s stuff by her bed. It held an old set of encyclopedias, some law books, comic books, and history textbooks. On the top shelf, covered in dust, sat some of his old toys from when he was a kid. She’d found the jack-in-the-box there.
The first time she’d played with it, the POP had terrified her. She knew what it was, but—this being her first experience with such a toy—the clown had truly frightened her, causing her to drop the box. After the initial shock wore off, she couldn’t wait to do it again. Getting to that heart-pounding moment, cranking out the old rusty tune to the climax of the song became like an obsession. She played it over and over and over.
It was the fifth time the poorly made little doll popped out that Jenna noticed the scratches on his right palm. They were faint, but visible. At first she thought they might have happened when she dropped him, but when she looked closer she realized the marks had been made on purpose because they clearly spelled out, “HI!”
The sudden lump in Jenna’s throat caught her off guard. Daddy! she thought. Dad must have carved that! She hugged the clown to her chest and pictured her father as a little kid using a pin or a pocket knife to place a message in the clown’s hand, give him a friendly greeting to share, make his sudden appearance less frightening.
The toy had seemed more special then. Jenna had put it away extra carefully, worried that she might have been too rough with it. She decided she’d only look at it from now on and not risk breaking the antique music box inside.
But the next night, when Jenna stood on a chair to get the jack-in-the-box off the shelf, she couldn’t resist turning the little metal crank just one more time to see the clown again and trace the letters of her dad’s note from long ago. She rotated the small handle.
Do doop, do doop, do doop DOOP doop do, do doop, do doop, do doooo doop… Do doop, do doop, do doop DOOP doop do, POP!
Jenna held her breath as the clown sprang forth, flopping his right arm, the faint HI! waving before her. She rubbed the message with her thumb, but the indentions were so shallow she couldn’t feel them. “Hi,” she whispered, and clicked the lid shut.
Almost immediately, she felt the urge to see the clown again, to play the song just one more time. The little girl placed her fingers casually on the handle. While looking out the window, she sighed and gently poked it back and forth with her forefinger. Then, do doop. By “complete accident”, she’d turned the knob one time.
“Oh, well, can’t leave the song in the middle.” Jenna smiled and spun the crank around again until POP! There was Mr. Clown. The girl chuckled at her own sneakiness and sought the doll’s right hand, which had landed face down this time. She raised the palm and stared at the scratched message there. JENNA.
Her mother ran into the room to see what was the matter, but Jenna had stuffed the clown back into its hole before she arrived. She showed her mother what she was playing with and said it had scared her. She tried her best to look both innocent and playful. Her mother frowned and left.
Then, with shaking hands, Jenna played the song again. And again. And again.
Each time the word in the clown’s hand changed. Until finally, there was no word at all. And there wasn’t another one for the rest of the day.
As Jenna lay in bed that night, unable to sleep, she kept picturing the words that had appeared on the plastic hand.
HI! JENNA. YOU. ARE. SO. PRETTY.
The following day, Jenna had walked around feeling like she had an angel and a devil on her shoulder, or maybe a tiny mother and a clown. She knew that there was something wrong with the toy. She knew her mother would throw it away immediately if she found out. But she also felt excitement and curiosity. This was real magic! And it was happening to her!
Jenna did what most ten-year-olds would do. She kept the magic to herself. And she decided to see what would happen next.
Over the course of the week, the jack-in-the-box had sent Jenna five more messages. One a night. Always one word at a time. They always began with the same two words, but after that each communication was different.
HI! JENNA PLEASE PLAY WITH ME.
HI! JENNA WE ARE GOOD FRIENDS.
HI! JENNA YOU CAN TRUST ME.
HI! JENNA I HAVE A SECRET.
HI! JENNA IT’S ABOUT YOUR MOM.
That last note had been a little disconcerting. For some reason, it bothered Jenna more to see her mother appear in the clown’s hand than to see her own name. Maybe it was selfishness. She wanted the clown’s messages to be for her and her alone. She didn’t want her mother brought into this.
Tonight’s message, though, the one Jenna finished reading while her mother stood stiffly in the doorway of her new room, had almost caused her to have an anxiety attack of her own. As she lay in bed, turning the box over and over in the dark, she wondered for the umpteenth time if she should throw the thing away.
At first, it was fun. The messages were mysterious, but harmless. These last two, though, had given the poor girl a stomachache. She closed her eyes, but tonight’s words were imprinted on her brain.
HI! JENNA SHE DID SOMETHING BAD.
“She” meant Jenna’s mom. Her mind played the message from the night before and this one together. IT’S ABOUT YOUR MOM. SHE DID SOMETHING BAD. “She” definitely meant Mom.
Jenna made a very grown-up decision. She was done playing with the jack-in-the-box. Even though it was dark, she moved a chair over to the bookcase, carefully climbed up, and replaced the toy on the shelf. Then, she got back into bed and fell into a restless sleep.
The next morning, Jenna felt better. Everything seemed sort of silly in the light of day. She convinced herself that she had made up the messages. Even though she was still a child, she knew there probably wasn’t any such thing as real magic. She knew, too, that she had been missing her dad more than she had admitted, even to herself. That was partly why she had enjoyed the company of the clown so much. In a weird way, he had been someone to talk to each night. She had felt sorry for the clown too, stuck in that box all the time, alone, in the dark.
Jenna knew what loneliness felt like.
Picturing the most recent message though, Jenna shuddered. Her mom’s new foul demeanor and sudden lack of warmth were probably to blame for her imagining that last note. Still, she was glad she’d decided to put the thing away. She spent most of the day outdoors in the sun, drawing pictures in an old sketchbook.
After dinner, sun sleepy and finally feeling at ease, Jenna went to her room. She stopped just inside the door. The jack-in-the-box was sitting on her bed.
For a moment, the girl wondered if her mother had put it there, but that didn’t make any sense. Not only did her mom disapprove of the toy, but she also didn’t come more than a foot inside Jenna’s room for any reason. Since the week following her dad’s death, just after they had switched the furniture between the two spaces, her mother started refusing to enter either of the rooms anymore.
No, her mom definitely did not move the toy.
Jenna approached the jack-in-the-box slowly, already knowing, without even having to consciously think it, that she would turn the handle again. The stress of the night before flooded back onto her as her hand touched the cold plastic and began to push. Do doop, do doop…
Around and around, without pause or thought, Jenna cranked out the impossibly predictable tune.
First POP– HI!
Second POP– JENNA.
Third POP– SHE.
She. Jenna’s mom.
The fourth time around the mulberry bush, Jenna closed her eyes when the jack-in-the-box went POP. She kept them closed for a few seconds before opening them, before looking at the clown doll’s right palm.
She slammed the lid shut. No. No! No! She would not turn it again. She would not let the sentence be finished. She shoved the box underneath her bed, far underneath, turned out the light and got under the covers. No. No, no, no. It was the only word she would allow herself to think. She fell asleep to the rhythmic, repetitive refusal.
Jenna dreamed of the jack-in-the-box. In her nightmare, the thing was twenty times its size. When the clown popped out, it grabbed her and pulled her into the box, shutting the lid over her screams, locking her inside. From within the darkness, she could hear the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel” playing very slowly, but it sounded far away instead of inside the box with her. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere below her.
Jenna’s eyes shot open. The music was real. And it was coming from underneath her bed.
Do doop DOOP doop do… POP!
Thunk. She felt something smack against the bottom of her bed. The lid. The lid had opened.
Jenna started to cry. She couldn’t call for her mother; she wouldn’t come anyway. She couldn’t fall back asleep, not with that thing open under her bed and more nightmares waiting for her in slumber. Sniffling, she climbed to the floor. She knelt on the carpet. She reached her hand underneath the bed.
I just won’t look at its hand, she thought. But she could not resist. The word was not a surprise.
SHE KILLED YOUR. Jenna let out a sob. She looked around her room and saw the scotch tape on her desk. She closed the lid, taped it shut, opened her closet, and put the box inside. She closed the door and got back into bed, but instead of lying down, she hugged her knees to her chest and just kept repeating, “No, no, please, no.”
The little girl tried not to let her mind wander. Rocking back and forth on her bed, she tried to banish all thought, but images, memories, sounds, doubts kept pouring in.
Her parents had not been getting along. Twice, Jenna had woken up and found her dad asleep in his office, sprawled awkwardly in the leather desk chair. There had been arguments and, she hated to admit that she’d heard it, but the word “divorce” had been said. Her dad had said it.
The night before he died, he put Jenna to bed, tucked her in, and read her a story like he used to when she was little. He sat in the rocking chair by her bed until he thought she was asleep. Then he whispered, “I love you, baby. No matter what happens, I love you.” Then, he closed his eyes.
The following morning, Jenna awoke to the sound of her mother’s screams. She opened her eyes and took in the scene. Her father was slumped on the floor in front of the rocking chair, unmoving. Her mother was crouched over him, screaming. The phone was clutched in her mom’s hand, a small tinny voice issuing from it. “Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you there? Ma’am, what is your emergency?”
Her mother had handed the phone to Jenna and whispered, “Heart attack. Tell the lady your daddy had a heart attack.” Then, she went back to screaming.
Jenna had done as she was told. She’d been very brave, everyone had said, very mature. She’d done everything right. There was nothing more anyone could have done to save him.
“It was a heart attack,” Jenna mumbled to herself now, still rocking. “Right?”
Suddenly, she stopped.
From behind the closet door, she heard the tune begin to play.
Do doop… do doop… do doop DOOP doop do…
Trembling, she got out of bed and slowly opened the closet door. All on its own, the handle of the jack-in-the-box was turning.