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.
Your lover reaches over and places his hand on your back.
“These children are not your children,” he reminds you. He smiles.
These children are not your children. They are not you. They are nothing like you.
“You have something to teach,” he tells you, “and they have something to learn.”
They are everything like you. They will become you. They will become your children.
“I don’t know,” you told Sebastian in the stairwell. His eyes wet and black as a pearl. He was right, he had been right all along. It didn’t matter. You were sorry it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that you were sorry.
The children remind you of all they could be and you could not. That you are responsible for this distinction, and you aren’t ready.
“Veronica,” you said, and sat down.
When you were in third grade, you craned your neck and stared up through the pines. You looked at the birds. You spent the whole hour of recess like that, as if you could protect yourself, puffing all the way out.
You. Singular, or Plural?
Miss, that’s a trick question right. You’re tricking me.
You is both.
Sebastian watched you. You knelt by his desk as though offering prayer. “This is just the beginning,” you said aloud. “You haven’t even started. You haven’t even lived yet.” You sound like you’re begging.
When you were in fourth grade, you came home with pockets full of sand. “She doesn’t know how to talk to other kids,” the teacher explained.
Miss. Miss, you know bein’ nice doesn’t do shit.
Children are sweeter than they know how to be. Your lover waited by the window, his head cutting into the light. Your lover was good. His eyes were deep and brown. It did not matter that he was good. It did not matter that he was also young, once. He said: “What does teaching do for you?”
“You haven’t even started yet,” you tell Veronica at the lunch table. It sounds like you’re begging. “You haven’t even lived.” Who are you trying to convince?
You try to fill yourself up with what went missing, and ask yourself who took that part away from you, anyway? You’re a teacher. You’re just trying to figure out its shape, get it back.
Veronica doesn’t look at you. Her heat and your heat pulse up through the cloth into your palm. Everywhere in the cafeteria, plastic crinkles.
You don’t know what it is you’re missing, is the truth.
In fifth grade, you changed schools. You started over, again, anew. And then in college, the chance to start again. To become, again.
Veronica turns. You feel her self-loathing and you feel your self-loathing and pegged in the center of the hurricane, you remember why you fear children who remind you of yourself.
Sebastian slams his palms into the table.
When he was in sixth grade, your brother sold old toys for cash. In sophomore year of high school, he dismantled a car. Post-graduation, he makes more money than you ever will. His questions are shaped like demands. He is always answered.
Sebastian: “I’m not going to answer that.”
What does teaching do for you? The children give you something. Permission to be someone else. What does teaching do for you? Opportunity to make up for something you did not, could not do. Could not be.
You and your lover start to work in separate rooms.
You start to wonder if every teacher isn’t a damn loser. If you have lost all sense of talking to people your own age. If you made that choice. If it was because those were your best years.
If it was because they were your worst. If you could be doing something better. If this is the only thing you can do.
Sebastian turns. He has the face of your brother. Sebastian turns. He has the face of your lover. Sebastian turns and in a flash you see the man he could be, may be, is, is not yet.
You are responsible for this distinction. Are you ready?
You turn to the board. Write: You are stronger than you let yourself believe. You mimic sureness so that the children can copy it down.
What does teaching do for you?
‘Alo? Si? You’re teaching my daughter? You’re so young.
The mothers glare at you. A mother is a mother is a mother. A child is a child is a child. You feel like a child. You teach.
Mateo graduates. He says, “Thank you,” and smiles. He shakes your hand, solid and sure.
The best ones remind you that you were never the best. The worst remind you that you escaped. The girls remind you of your body and your terror and how that terror is still there, and so is your body, and so you fail them. The boys remind you of your brothers and lovers and somehow unknowable, are more easy to forgive.
Your lover says: “You’re so angry, all the time.”
“Veronica. Tell me what’s wrong.”
When you were in school, teachers left you alone. They thought it was what you wanted. You watched your brother as though you were watching the birds through the pines. No one was watching you. You protected yourself that way. No one would hear you. No one was listening.
Veronica shakes her head.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Your lover looks back at you. You are watched, constantly.
Veronica gathers her breath. “Stop. Stop pitying me miss.”
You take command of your features and hold them in place. You turn, walk away from her, away from the rest of the girls and boys at the table, from the years between who you were and who you became.
And isn’t it true that the loudest are always the ones that are heard?
You are reminded why you avoid those who remind you of yourself.
The truth is, you haven’t learned. Why the fuck are you a teacher?
Your lover doesn’t say anything the morning you return the cup of coffee. He looks up from under his brows. The cup is warm and the sky remains blank as a sheet. He looks out at the window at the birds. He is good. He lets you go.
Sebastian puts his head against the desk.
“You have to try.”
“I am trying.”
“You haven’t even started. Try.”
On the day she graduates, Veronica shakes her head. She doesn’t want to shake your hand.
Instead of touching you, she smiles.
You tell the class to raise up their boards. “We know!” Sebastian shouts. His voice sounds familiar. You’ve paired him a shy girl. And she whispers: “No,” in a voice so familiar it pains you.
“We have to try,” Sebastian answers. Your heart escapes your body.
On your worst days, you think of Veronica. On your best days too.
Subject. Point. Object. Point. Singular. Point. Plural. Point. You is both.
You wanted to tell the shy girl to raise her own hand. You watch and wonder what kind of woman she will become. You hope she will become like you. You hope she will not become like you.
you will write years later, It’s good to hear from you.
What do you expect from a child anyway? They haven’t even started yet.
Mateo, I can’t teach what to do or not do because some things we have to learn on our own.
Expect everything for a child. They haven’t started yet.
Your lover left quietly, at night. Your faces remind each other of too many things. Of the people you were, the people you could not be. You were young once and vow to be young again. You begin in the dark by shifting and move as the sun breaks the morning stillness with light. Your rage softens, alters, transforms. You start again. You pour yourself into ninety other beginning bodies.
Each year, you walk through the double doors. Up the yellow stairs and into a square room where the children are waiting. The children are more ready than they let themselves believe. The world is still and pending. This is just the beginning. Each year, you start over
and over again. Every smile reminds you. And in that square room, the children’s eyes make arcs above your head, as though wherever you walked, you drew a flock of birds.
Isabella Esser Munera's work has been supported by the Bread Loaf conference and Yale Writers' Workshop. She has previously worked as an editor for the journal Foglifter and was the recipient of the 2015 Ursinus Poetry Prize. She currently teaches in Brooklyn, New York.