The Children We've Been
Isabella Esser Munera
To start, you call a name: “Mateo.” The child looks up, face slack with horror. You lean on your wrists. “Call on someone.” The child refocuses their gaze, something sliding into place. A dimness brightens, hardens. He turns to look at his peers, now slowly backing into themselves, now shaking their heads— and Mateo, baffled by power, calls a name. The scale tips. Something changes. The class smartens, subtly, beneath the slow pivot of his head.
Whenever a student asks a question, you repeat it. “Who can answer that?” Skinny arms spring up around the room, one by one. You look at the questioner. “Call on someone. Friends want to help you.”
You help Mateo, folding your legs under the desk. The children are smarter than they know how to be. This is the subject. Point. This is the object. Point. And how do you know? Mateo smiles.
You are so startled by the shape his face takes that your own face responds almost simultaneously. You stand, taking command of your features, holding them in place.
His smile was the same as your lover’s. You turn back to the board and start again.
Your first year, the student’s name was Veronica. Veronica did not, or appeared to not, shower. A cloud of unease followed her, floating distinctly above her head. Her clothes were dirty.
The bubbling swell of her body was unforgivable, sweating, rancid- her shoulders tightly scrunched by her ears, as if she could protect herself like that, curving all the way in.
Mateo watches you. You are watched constantly. You write, the words suddenly forming in your mouth, suddenly appearing on the board. You marvel at sureness, how it comes from practice. Practice that comes, after years, from mimicking sureness.
Children are more honest than they know how to be. Mateo snickers.
Before you took the job that would solidify into a career, your lover offered you a cup of coffee. You took it. You told him you wanted to be a teacher. Outside the birds chittered. He smiled.
Children are meaner than they know how to be. Girls were cruel to Veronica. Alejandra. Jasmina. Marji. Girls curving out of their jeans asked questions shaped like demands. They were answered. You answered to them.
Mateo raises his hand to answer. That’s the subject. I know because it’s the most important.
You listened to Alejandra. To Ramon, the big kid with the hat; to Brian, with bright diamond studs. At the end of the lunch table, Veronica cried.
You sit with Sebastian in the school stairwell. He’s just thrown a tantrum. “Miss,” he says. Calm now. “Miss,” he says again, as if he could summon something with your name. “There’s no point.” He blinks a few times until you realize he is crying. A single drop curves down his cheek. He doesn’t move to wipe it. The anger has not disappeared. The streak glistens.
“Veronica,” you said. You stand at the end of the cafeteria table.
“He makes me so angry,” you tell your lover, frustrated, coming home.
“Who?” Your lover asks. He is yawning.
You place your hand on Veronica’s back. It’s wet with sweat.
Children feel more than they know how to feel. Mateo raises his hand. “Miss,” he says. He smiles. “Are we friends?”
“Veronica,” you said, again, as though you could summon something with a name.