Fiction

Massachusetts

Caleb Crain
A chalkboard in a classroom
Dejan Krsmanovic / Creative Commons

After it has stopped raining it is tiresome to talk about rain, except perhaps merely as a fact, abated by time, and so every day when the children left math they carried none of Mr. Domenico’s rigor with them into social studies, taught by the milder Mrs. Follen. Mrs. Follen therefore perceived in them only their rebound from rigor, the pleasure manifest in them as they took on or took back shapes that were more natural, and her inference about Mr. Domenico, if she made any, might easily have been that he provoked or even encouraged their energy.

They didn’t mind; they thought of her as being a little silly. She was always sharply made up even though she was older than their parents. Her eyes and lips were marked so as to make her face as dark and splashy as a poinsettia. She was skinny, and her hair was tightly permed, and her jackets had broad lapels, and her blouses had long, pointed collar ends, and always a bow or a foulard was lightly and loosely knotted at her neck like a flower that had blossomed amid the superfluous luxury. How could the children take her seriously? They knew at a glance she would never fail anyone.

“Does everyone have scissors? Do you all have scissors?” They did, and in front of every child was a newspaper, too. They had been asked by her to bring one from home that was a day or two old. Don’t bring me a paper that your father might still be reading, she had warned them. Don’t get me in trouble!

Children sitting with an evening paper in front of them counted with complacency the other evening papers within sight. The evening paper was known to be broader minded, which might have been an accidental result of its editors’ personalities, or maybe there was something about the afternoon that was more consonant with a contemplative and considerate outlook on the world. The difference between the papers did not trouble any of the children who had brought a morning paper, however. The morning paper spoke for itself, as it sat fatly on their desks, by containing simply more news, especially about the city that lay on the other side of the thin river at the edge of town. A city, though uglier, is more important than a town. A few students—Brenda Moroney, Kyle Biscuit, and Leeann Foulkes—had not brought in a newspaper, and Mrs. Follen had supplied papers to them in a discreet and cheerful way that signaled that it would be impolite to ask why the recipients’ families did not subscribe. Brenda Moroney was part Indian, Kyle Biscuit was slow, and Leeann Foulkes fluttered when she moved, and one of her eyes was turned sideways and looked at the bridge of her nose. The give-­away papers were all morning editions—unfairly in the opinion of several evening-­paper children who were keeping score.

In 1977 most newspapers in America were evening editions.

“Now, children, we’re going to find the parts of the newspaper, one by one, and cut them out. The headline, the dateline, the masthead, and all the other parts. Are you ready?” As the children anticipated the joy of destruction, chatter purled softly through the classroom. They knew that every day as the hours advanced, disorder rose in them like snowmelt adding to a stream and that it was only partly out of her own personal weakness that Mrs. Follen sometimes chose tasks whose point seemed to be providing a channel for it. It was not a great loss, in any case, for her to make such a settlement with their animal spirits. Social studies did not derive from first principles, as math did. It was only a set of generalizations about what people happened to do. It was fitting that in the children’s daily schedule math preceded it. Science was prior to society.

I wonder if the town still owns that playground. The building stopped being used as a school in the 1980s, and not long afterward the panes in the top halves of all its great windows were boarded up to save on heating bills. Perhaps by now the town has allowed offices and condominiums to be built on the vacant ground in back, which, for the middle of a town, was a considerable quantity of land to give over to children. Almost a whole block. In those days the townspeople were for the most part only of modest means and land was still cheap enough to let children have it. The children knew every square inch of the playground as if the extent of it were a promise that had been made to them. They knew where the ground was still likely to be muddy even two or three days after a storm. They knew the one stretch that was almost always hard enough and level enough for nerf football. In their minds it was divided up into a kingdom for jump rope, a kingdom for clapping out rhymes, a kingdom for pickle, a kingdom for tag. Pickle was the stealing-­bases part of baseball made into its own game. Along the playground’s eastern edge, where a chain-­link fence cut it off from the backyards of neighboring houses, stood a row of trees, misshapen because they had been left behind after the trees next to them had been cut down. Children who didn’t have anyone to play with were free to wander under the trees as if looking for something. Dennis Travers, for example, whose voice sounded like a mother’s, could be found there picking at bark with a penny. For a month or two, Jacob Putnam, when he was still recently arrived from California, had stood there with Dennis, but then Jacob had been invited to play nerf football; Jacob had become the one boy who couldn’t really throw or catch who was let into the game. There hadn’t been openings for two such boys.

Jacob never asked Dennis whether he minded.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Mrs. Follen said. “No, on second thought, I’ll have you guess.” She held up her newspaper. “Where in the paper do you find the story that is most important on any given day?”

She mimed riffling through the paper, as if the answer were hidden within.

As the children scissored items out of their newspapers, they labeled the cutouts in blue ink and placed them in manila folders.

“The front page?” George Connor suggested. He always spoke slowly and deliberately. Without ever having had any training he could reproduce freehand the outlines of cartoon characters, at any size. The animals that appeared on cereal boxes, for example. Everyone, students and teachers, loved him. It fell to him to play along with Mrs. Follen whenever her lessons were a little simple-­minded.

“Can you be more specific?” She looked again, coachingly, at her newspaper.

“At the top of the front page?” George asked. He was a gentleman, the way he went along with her.

“But look, there are three stories here at the top. ‘Archbishop Killed in Uganda “Crash.”’ ‘Judge Voids Oil Leases Offshore.’ ‘Defense Opens in Senators’ Trial.’ Which is the most important? Someone else.”

“Isn’t it usually the one where the headline is widest?” offered Penny Wallace.

“That is a clue,” Mrs. Follen encouraged. “Someone else? Anyone?”

“Maybe it’s the story on the top left?” proposed Harry Rantoul. He was often a captain in football. “I mean, killing a priest.” Like most of the children in town, he was Catholic.

“No,” said Mrs. Follen. “Sorry, Harry.”

“But you read from left to right,” Harry objected. “At least I do.”

The class laughed.

“The top middle story?” Penny called out, scrunching her nose. Often the correct answer was, after all, the one that made
a compromise.

“No, not the middle, either,” Mrs. Follen said.

Now it was a stupid question, since there was only one answer left. “The top right?” asked Jacob, though it made no sense.

“The most important story, class, is always on the top right of the front page,” Mrs. Follen concurred. “These senators are being tried in the courthouse downtown, just across the river, you know. This is a statewide story, maybe even a national story, and it’s taking place in our backyard.”

Jacob scowled. He took it personally when the correct answer was arbitrary rather than motivated by reason, because it would be more trouble to live in the world if it were not possible simply to intuit its arrangement from first principles.

As the children scissored items out of their newspapers, they labeled the cutouts in blue ink and placed them in manila folders. The girls, as well as boys like Jacob and Dennis Travers and Norbert Yee who had it in them to be neat, tried to tuck back into their loosely refolded newspapers the tousled ribbons of paper that now extruded, but it wasn’t possible to make the newspapers whole again. It was not quite spring yet; the radiators under the windows knocked and sighed. With her red ballpoint, as she walked down the aisles between the desks, Mrs. Follen certified with a checkmark each item in each folder. “Yes, excellent. Yes.” The ink from her pen was glossy, like lipstick or like cherry medicine.

Abstract art with bright primary colors in rectangular shapes.
Jonathan Rajewski, Cuts, 2020. Courtesy Jonathan Rajewski and Nina Johnson, Miami, Fl.

MR. DOMENICO’S RED PEN, in contrast, had a felt tip. The ink of it soaked thickly into the chalky gray sheets, called math paper, on which the children did their calculations for him, closing up the eyes of his 6’s, 8’s, and 9’s. He wrote his 4’s with an open fork instead of a closed triangle.

“New page,” he declared. When he dictated, he specified exactly the way the children were to lay out their notes. “New page, Harry.”

At the repetition of the command, everyone looked up.

“Sorry,” Harry Rantoul said, and he, too, turned to a blank page, so that now on all the desks in the classroom, only empty blue staves were visible, struck through by the pink rule of the left margin.

“‘Long Division,’” Mr. Domenico announced. On the blackboard, he wrote each of the two words of this title in a distinct, continuous stroke, not lifting his chalk to dot the second word’s three i’s until the base of the word was structurally complete. His handwriting had a fineness that spoke of him. His skin was bronze even now in late winter. His dark hair was thinning on top—burned away, he liked to joke, by his mind—and his sideburns were thick and curly. He wore his shirts unbuttoned to the second or third button; printed sometimes in smoky colors, sometimes in pastel ones, they bore scenes as elaborate as those on wallpaper: lions in repose on a veldt, sharp-­fingered palm leaves splayed against a blue sky over sand, a river winding through a canyon. On his right wrist hung a gold watch and around his neck a gold chain.

We learned, a few years later, that during our fourth-­grade year he was being divorced by his wife, but at the time we knew only that there were some days he spent mostly in silence at the classroom window, dandling in his heavy hands the ivory pulls of the venetian blinds.

He finished writing on the blackboard and upon turning saw that Brenda Moroney had raised her hand. He stared at her for a moment before acknowledging her. “Brenda,” he said.

“Can I be excused?”

He turned back to the blackboard. Not responding was one of the things he did, but Brenda probably didn’t even know what she had said wrong. “Underline the heading twice,” Mr. Domenico said, underlining it that way himself.

In their notebooks the children obeyed.

“Mr. Domenico? And can Leeann come with me?” Brenda asked.

Technically, girls, unlike boys, were allowed to have a classmate accompany them, but it was not in one’s interest to ask for every exemption one could get.

Mr. Domenico slowly faced the classroom again. “I don’t know, can she?” he asked.

Brenda still didn’t understand. “You’ll come, right?” she said to Leeann Foulkes.

“May she,” Leeann stage whispered.

“May she what?” Brenda replied. “I need to go,” she said urgently.

“You couldn’t have gone during recess,” Mr. Domenico said.

“I didn’t have to go then.”

He sat down at his desk and wrote out hall passes. The two girls crept forward on tiptoe, unsure of his permission.

After they left, he stared out the window. The bars of light and shade in it were less sharply contrasted now that the sun had turned the corner of the building.

“Those of you who haven’t memorized your times tables,” he said, as he returned to the blackboard, “are going to have a lot of trouble with long division.” It was as though his disgust were a piece of gristle that he wanted to, but for politeness’ sake couldn’t, take out of his mouth. “And probably with the rest of your lives.”

He was either joking or in his way confiding in them. In the front row Harry Rantoul looked over his shoulder to see how the other children were taking it.

“You’ll have to go elsewhere if you want the soft soap, Harry,” Mr. Domenico said.

“I know.”

George Connor shook his head.

“That okay with you, Connor?” Mr. Domenico asked.

“Yes, Mr. Domenico.”

“Why are you telling us we need our times tables, Mr. Domenico?” Penny Wallace asked.

“You know yours, Penny,” he said. “I wasn’t talking about people like you.”

Jacob kept still. There were a few squares in the times table that he hadn’t learned until a few months ago. In California, where the sun’s handling had turned his hair blond, his quickness had so impressed his teachers that they had left him free to imagine things about mathematics, and he had invented his own property of transitivity, which had licensed him to swap plus signs and times signs whenever he wanted to. He had used the property to avoid having to multiply numbers whose products he hadn’t memorized, and for as long as he had lived in California, no one had noticed. It wasn’t until Massachusetts, where his hair had turned dark, the way gold hair does when it gets wet, except permanently, that there had been a reckoning. Norbert Yee had scored higher than he did on quizzes so often, and Jacob had wanted so badly to secure for himself the half-­ironic praise for faultlessness that Mr. Domenico gave to Norbert, that one day Jacob made the experiment of comparing the path of calculation licensed by his invented property of transitivity with the path that a less imaginative boy would take, and realized.

“What are you doing there, Putnam?” Mr. Domenico had asked, about the double set of calculations.

“Nothing,” Jacob had said, erasing the evidence of the experiment, turning the marks that he had made on the page into feathery pink-­gray nubbles, which could be brushed away. To himself he was willing to acknowledge that it was fear of failure, a condition of life in Massachusetts, that had supplied him with the motivation to see through his error.

Since then, Jacob and Norbert had always been tied on quizzes, or nearly tied. Every Thursday, Jacob went over to Norbert’s after school to trade postage stamps, which they both collected. Norbert’s parents had a bronze roundel on their mantelpiece that Norbert said was a calendar that would last a thousand years.

Mr. Domenico drew a dividing line on the chalkboard. To call it a dividing line made it sound as though it represented separation, but Jacob thought of the operation as a kind of flowing-­into that was like sharing and also like breaking into pieces.

Dividend, Mr. Domenico wrote, in all lowercase, inside the cage of the dividing line, again deferring the dots on his i’s until the word was complete. Divisor, he wrote to the left of and outside of the cage. Their heads bowed, the students copied the labels.

Mr. Domenico picked up his yardstick and, as he continued to dictate, began to pace.

since even before the trial separation, there had been an hour in the afternoon when Jacob and his sister, Alice, had the house to themselves. On the living room floor, Jacob laid out the front sections of a week of newspapers. That winter a woman in Florida who sang songs about orange juice was beginning a campaign to save children from homosexuals, and her campaign appeared in almost every one of the papers that Jacob was working with. There was her face, and there was her name, day after day. For the purposes of Mrs. Follen’s assignment, to choose the story was almost too easy. Homosexuality was not Christian, but in California Jacob’s parents had known a homosexual and the Putnams had once been invited to have lunch with him and his son, between Jacob and Alice in age. The homosexual had lived in a hollowed-­out lighthouse; to tour it, they had all had to climb from floor to floor on ladders. The son had let Jacob and Alice read his Tintin comic books with him in his bedroom, on one of the upper levels, while the man and their parents had carefully talked, among themselves, around a table on the lighthouse’s ground floor. The boy’s mother hadn’t lived in the lighthouse, but at the moment Jacob’s father didn’t live with Jacob and Alice and their mother, either. Even so, a voice told Jacob, it was a risk to cut the articles out. He did it anyway. There were parts of Jacob that were not yet reconciled to Massachusetts and still longed for California, which had meant only freedom, and for Texas, which had meant only love.

“you’re prejudice,” Harry Rantoul accused Mrs. Follen. “You’re prejudice against sports.”

“Baseball doesn’t develop from one game to another,” Mrs. Follen defended herself.

“You don’t know the score ahead of time.”

“But the game itself doesn’t change. If there were a series of stories about a conflict in the sport,” she suggested. “Between the players and the owners, say. But it can’t be just one thing happening and then another thing happening, even if they’re happening to the same people.”

“I suppose,” George Connor said, with his slow way of talking, “that you’re going to say that the daily stock report isn’t a developing story, either.”

“No, it isn’t,” Mrs. Follen said. “I’m sorry, George.”

George, smiling, shared a look with Harry.

“It can’t just be numbers going up or down,” Mrs. Follen said.

“Don’t let Mr. Domenico hear you say that,” Harry warned.

“I’m not running down numbers, Harry,” she said.

Harry crumpled his baseball articles and tossed them one by one toward the wastepaper basket. “Two points,” he commented, and rose to retrieve and reshoot the one that had missed.

Brenda’s hand had been up so long that she was supporting its elbow with her other hand. “Brenda,” Mrs. Follen said. Even she was cautious with Brenda.

“I only have two so far but Mashpee Wampanoags Sue for Land, and State Moves to Dismiss Indian Claims with Prejudice.”

Brenda had never spoken in class about being an Indian before.

“Oh my, Brenda. That is excellent.”

“They would do that, wouldn’t they,” Harry commented. “Dismiss Indians with prejudice.”

“It’s a different meaning of the word,” Mrs. Follen observed. “Here it means they’re trying to end the lawsuit in a way that won’t let the Indians try again later.”

“Same difference,” Harry said. It was a Massachusetts saying.

“Norbert, what about you?” Mrs. Follen asked. “What did you bring?”

“No, no,” Norbert said, clucking his tongue at himself, shaking his head. “I also chose stories only about numbers.”

“Which numbers?”

“Really? Okay. Ways and Means Approves Fifty-­Dollar Rebate.” He paused to cough something out of his throat. “Ahem, excuse me. House Approves Rebate While Raising Income Threshold.”

“But that’s fine, Norbert. That’s the progress of a fiscal proposal as it’s making its way through Congress.”

“Oh, it is?” Norbert said, in his relief smiling suddenly and raising the pencil in his hand as if it were the pole of an invisible flag. “I thought it couldn’t be a developing story if it’s only numbers.”

“But they’re having a negotiation about the numbers.”

“Oh, I see, yes,” he said, nodding happily.

Jacob, rivalrous, now raised his hand, too. “Orange Growers’ Spokeswoman Again Assails Special Rights,” he read. “Activists Declare Boyc—”

He stopped because with a hand Mrs. Follen was signaling for him to.

“Let’s you and I talk about this,” Mrs. Follen said, “before you go any further.”

Blood pooled up in Jacob’s stomach. He nodded. Harry turned to look at Jacob wonderingly, and so did a few girls, but George and Norbert, tactfully, did not. Maybe if he didn’t respond in any way, it would be more quickly forgotten. It was unfair that in the realm of social studies the laws weren’t declared openly the way they were in mathematics.

while dividing 28 into 1,316, Jacob tried to write his numerals as perfectly as George Connor did. The class was working silently on a page of exercises in long division. Jacob tried to stop thinking about the numerals as representations of numbers and tried to see them only as shapes on the page. He drew the numerals larger and more faintly than he usually did; they came out looking paler and calmer. Like ghosts. But even in their ghostly form the circles in his 6’s still were not even, and none of his 1’s were straight. He erased a 1 and was trying to redraw it without a slant or a bend when Mr. Domenico cracked his yardstick across the glossy plane of Harry Rantoul’s desk.

“Geez,” Harry said.

Jacob’s pencil had jumped like the needle on a turntable if you stomp. He started rubbing away the heavy mark that it had made.

“You weren’t paying attention, Harry,” Mr. Domenico said.

“I was doing my work.”

“Don’t lie to me.” He pointed to the windows. Harry must have been looking out of them.

Recess came after lunch, and maybe we lingered over the debris of our lunches—over the orange peels, the uneaten crusts, and the triangles of milk, gone room temperature and a little sour, that could always still be found in the corner of a half pint.

Tapping his yardstick against the palm of his hand, Mr. Domenico continued to patrol the aisles. When he stood over Jacob’s desk, and Jacob could feel the heat of his presence beside him, the papery, battering sound that the yardstick made inside Mr. Domenico’s hand was like the sound made by a trapped moth.

“What is this?” Mr. Domenico asked, of the timid-­looking symbols on the mostly empty sheet of paper in front of Jacob.

“I was trying to draw the numerals the way you draw them,” Jacob said.

The teacher walked away without reply. He inspected Norbert’s sheet of math paper; he inspected Kyle Biscuit’s. He inspected Jenny Fontayne’s.

“You have bad penmanship, Putnam,” he said, over his shoulder, still without looking at Jacob. “That’s who you are. Now do the assignment.”

It was a flaw that couldn’t be hidden or removed. Jacob had looked at Dennis Travers’s penmanship once, to see, and it had been as perfect as George Connor’s—a lady’s, but perfect. Jacob had felt in a way relieved.


in the mornings,
the children tumbled down the ridged black rubber stairs of the yellow buses that brought them to the schoolgrounds and then scattered along and across an asphalt escarpment that sloped down into the playground, reassembling there, one order giving way to another, into lines for each grade. In the cold, as they waited for school to begin, they hopped and shivered and blew visible breaths into the mittens on their hands. There was no logic to their places in the lines other than the sequence in which the buses from each neighborhood arrived, although the boys who played football tended to let others cut them in line so that they could stand together in back. Brenda Moroney walked to school because she lived above the convenience store at the intersection that marked the town center, and Norbert Yee walked because he happened to live only four blocks away, and so those two arrived according to their own schedules, by habit Norbert arriving early and Brenda just a minute or two before the bell rang. Brenda often stood in the back of the line with the boys. She was always joined there by Leeann as soon as Leeann spotted her.

Until the full cohort of students was delivered, Mr. Domenico, Mrs. Follen, and other teachers on bus duty stood slightly apart, surveying the children.

Brenda was showing Leeann a string of polished shells on her wrist when Harry noticed. “Aww, where’d you get it?” Harry asked.

“It’s like one my father had.”

“Is your father back?” Leeann asked.

“Shut up, Leeann,” Brenda said.

“Yeah, shut up, Leeann,” Harry echoed. “So it’s your dad’s.”

“No, but my mom says he had one like it.”

“Cool,” Harry said. “It’s an Indian thing?”

“The shells were for trading.”

“Isn’t it so pretty?” Leeann asked. “The way they’re purple.”

“The purple ones are more valuable,” Brenda said. “It’s only the white ones that are supposed to be called wampum, and they’re only worth half as much.”

“Are you going to trade them?” Harry asked.

“No,” Brenda replied, scornfully. “For what?” With her other hand she molded the bracelet to her wrist protectively and then dropped both hands to her sides as if preparing herself for something.

“All right,” Mr. Domenico announced. He turned, and the children in fourth grade followed him inside.


if you handed in
your math quiz early, and you were brave enough, you could stand beside Mr. Domenico, behind his desk at the front of the classroom, and watch over his shoulder as he graded it. For the most part only girls did this. With his red felt pen, Mr. Domenico noted and tallied the errors, subtracted from 100, and wrote the score at the top of the page, circling it.

“You’ll get a good job someday, Penny,” he told Penny Wallace, as he showed her her 95. “Probably in management.”

“Thank you.” She bobbed her head as she said it.

“What about me?” Harry asked, even though he hadn’t finished his quiz yet.

“I don’t know about you specifically, Rantoul,” Mr. Domenico said. “Most of you are going to end up like the guys I pass on the street, in sunglasses and reflective yellow jerseys, who think it’s cool that they get to work outside, yanked around like little dolls by the jackhammers that they’re holding onto.” He bugged out his eyes and mimed being shaken through his arms by a machine more powerful than he was. Penny, beside him, looked to see if Harry was going to laugh.

“Even George?” Harry asked.

“No, probably not George,” Mr. Domenico admitted.

“What about Norbert?” Penny asked.

“Norbert? Norbert’s going to invent a device and become so rich that he’ll own most of the town.”

The children laughed. “And Jacob?” Harry asked. “He’s a beemo, too.”

Mr. Domenico considered. While the class was waiting for his prophesy, George Connor looked up, squinted at Mr. Domenico, and then looked down again at his quiz. “Jacob’s going to be a terrorist,” Mr. Domenico decided. “It’s eggheads who become terrorists. When they think they have figured it all out.”

Brenda’s hand was raised.

“If you’re finished, Brenda, you can bring your quiz up to me.”

“I have speech therapy.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

“During my class,” Mr. Domenico said.

“Yeah.”

“What did you say?”

Penny Wallace quietly returned to her seat.

“Yeah,” Brenda repeated. When Mr. Domenico didn’t reply, she amended her answer: “I mean, yes, sir.”

The rules didn’t require her to say “sir.”

“Have you finished?”

“I tried to.” The string of shells slipped out from under the blouse sleeve where she had tucked it and fell to her wrist. “I was suppose to be in speech therapy ten minutes ago.”

Mr. Domenico approached her desk. “What is that?” he asked.

“Bracelet.”

“You’re allowed to wear jewelry?”

“I guess,” Brenda said.

“At your age,” Mr. Domenico said. His scorn was what anyone responsible might have felt for a person who didn’t appreciate math sharply enough to defend it from an interruption. He picked her sheet of math paper up off of her desk. “You wrote in pen?” he asked, returning his eyes to her after inspecting the sheet. Doing math in pen was against the rules. It was one of the first rules.

Brenda shrugged. “I don’t got no pencil,” she said. She tossed her bangs out of her eyes a little nervously.

“What did you say?” Mr. Domenico asked, biting each word as he pronounced it.

“I don’t got no pencil,” she repeated.

What did you say?” he asked again.

Three more times he asked the question, and three more times she gave the same reply. Under the interrogation there was no way for any of us to tell her the right way to say it. The words, as his voice grew harder with repetition and hers grew softer, drifted away from their meanings.

He slammed the palm of one of his great hands on her desk. The blow was louder and deeper than the report of his yardstick had been, and more jarring.

“What?” Brenda asked, her eyes darting. “I don’t got no pencil,” she said one more time, this time almost as though she were baiting him, persisting out of stubbornness.

“Hey,” Harry Rantoul said, very quietly.

“It’s people like you,” Mr. Domenico said to Brenda.

Brenda’s eyes were wet.

Mr. Domenico returned to his desk and wrote out a hall pass for her.

i can’t remember where we played when it rained. I’m tempted to say that we played outside in the rain—that this, too, was a condition of life in Massachusetts—or at least that we were permitted to play outside in it if we wanted to. But it’s more likely that the teachers turned us into the gym, which I remember as vast, although probably it wasn’t. Along the front wall of the gym were famous cartoon mice, ducks, and dogs that George Connor had painted, staying late one week after school. He had stood on newspapers taped to the hardwood floor, behind a row of orange traffic cones that kept him, while he worked, apart from anyone who happened to walk by. He made no claim for himself in the paintings; he wasn’t in them, in any way. It was the absence even of the cartoon characters themselves that seemed somehow to be depicted. These are not with us, the paintings seemed to be saying.

Or maybe, when it rained, we remained in the cafeteria, which was located in the basement, beneath the gym. Recess came after lunch, and maybe we lingered over the debris of our lunches—over the orange peels, the uneaten crusts, and the triangles of milk, gone room temperature and a little sour, that could always still be found in the corner of a half pint. I think that on some days, however, the door to the playground must have been left open, even in the rain, because I have a memory of Mrs. Follen laughing at our disappointment and encouraging us to go outside into it if we really wanted to.

“one thousand seven hundred and seventy-­two,” Mrs. Follen said, as she wrote on the blackboard the number of newspapers published in America in 1950. The children murmured. “It’s a relatively stable business. Today in 1977 there are one thousand seven hundred and fifty-­three.”

After she wrote that numeral, too, their murmuring grew louder.

“What?” she asked, one child and then another with her large, decorated eyes. Despite her age, she always wanted to be in on the joke. “What is it, children?”

“Mrs. Follen, you forgot your comma,” Harry Rantoul told her.

The children laughed. “Oh,” Mrs. Follen said. To both of the numerals on the blackboard, she added a curl between the digits in the hundreds and the thousands places. “There,” she said.

“You know the drill,” Harry said.

Penny Wallace burst out almost crying into her hands.

“What drill, Harry?”

“No, nothing,” Harry said.

“What drill?” Mrs. Follen insisted. She cocked her head and folded her arms.

By now several girls were doubled over their desks and even a few boys were laughing.

“Children!” Mrs. Follen said.

“Mr. Domenico makes us walk around the classroom,” George Connor finally explained. “Saying, ‘I forgot my comma.’”

“All the way around?” Mrs. Follen asked.

“Three times,” George told her.

“Oh, I can’t do that, children,” Mrs. Follen said, which made them laugh even harder.

“Or you can write it but that’s a hundred times,” Harry said.

“Stop laughing, children,” Mrs. Follen ordered. “If these are the rules, I should follow them, too, shouldn’t I? If I’m your teacher, shouldn’t I be held to the same standard?”

She was so kind and so weak. Inside the balloon sleeves of her jacket and under the ruffles of her blouse her arms must have been as thin as sticks.

She promised to write out her penance that evening.

A week later, long after the children had forgotten about it, she showed them two sides of a page that she had covered with repetitions, and she apologized for not finishing in a way that signaled that she knew she was never going to.

This was as close as she came to understanding Mr. Domenico.

Caleb Crain is the author of the critical study American Sympathy and of the novels Necessary Errors and Overthrow.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021

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