I wrote a short story based on my experience at a school in Georgia. Any resemblance, however, to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Sterling Clay Parker’s house had seven windows on its face. All seven windows were too small.
The two flanking the front door–the house was porchless; you stepped up to the door and more or less fell into the house–were higher than normal windows and seemed as though they should have been bay. But they weren’t. They were too small to allow visibility into the sparse yard, they were bathroom windows really.
Above the front door was a tiny window that would have presumably served as a skylight, had the builder any idea what a window’s actual functionality might be, or had the builder any idea where the sky was located. Instead the windows stared into long dead trees that shuddered longingly through wet winters and dry summers.
The second floor windows were stationed in lonely singles flanking a lonely pair of windows, each with their own dilapidated shutters bulging from the gray edifice.
More than being too small, all of the windows were useless.
Sterling Clay Parker didn’t see the uselessness of his windows, though, for his back was always to them. Once inside the comfort of his home he remained, lacking completely any desire to commune with the world beyond; he preferred the solace of his own house with its small hidden rooms and even smaller closets. There were no windows at all in the rooms he preferred, no natural light, or light of any kind. Sterling Clay Parker preferred the silence and the dark.
His house was what he built, and in the beginning he acknowledged the cracks in the foundation, the parts of the house that weren’t square. Over the years the emptiness of the house (save for Sterling’s own presence) weighed on him, then endeared itself to him. He was possessive of the intricate inadequacies of his house, and rather than correct them, he pretended they didn’t exist.
Sterling Clay Parker’s road was dirt, perhaps one of the only dirt roads left in this paved state. His road was shared by eight other neighbors whose houses were closer to the highway than his. Sterling Clay Parker’s house was the last on the road, at least a quarter of a mile away from the nearest turn-around should one of his neighbors’ guests find themselves lost. Even if the large Spanish oak tree didn’t obstruct the sky and obliterate the world around the house the windows would have been useless, for there was no one coming up the drive to see, no one strolling down the drive to greet.
Sterling Clay Parker used to find himself standing at his own front door staring out into the hopeful dust kicked up from somewhere down the road. Every morning before work and every afternoon after he would stand on his stoop facing the place he presumed the sun to be. He did this until the afternoon he met the mailman’s eyes.
Sterling Clay Parker lacked self-awareness, but somehow the watering of the mailman’s eyes coupled with his sad “cheer up fella” smile, made him feel gawked at. He wondered if the mailman mentioned him later. What kind of story would the mailman tell about him? Would dinner center around him?
Sterling Clay Parker didn’t mind being the center of attention, of course. He just wanted to control the attention he received.
One of Sterling Clay Parker’s largest defects (his mother would remind him, of the multitudes constantly) was his tendency to overshare information.
“You can’t let things grow, Clay,” she would condescend to him as he lamented another failed friendship. “You shoot your load the first go.” She had an uncanny knack for mixing metaphors, but her greatest gift was her ability to make Clay feel slightly uneasy with himself. Not enough to confront her, but just enough to feel consistently wounded and out of control of his own image.
Rather than accept his mother’s oft repeated advice, Clay over shared.
On Facebook he posted enough about politics to embarrass his friends into complete silence.
On Instagram he tagged celebrities in photos of his face awkwardly positioned near half empty Starbucks cups, hopeful that one would be so amused by Clay’s cleverness he would be compelled to respond.
On Twitter he found religion and the many gods of education. As an award winning educator (Sterling Clay Parker took great care to ensure that his signature read Dr. Sterling Clay Parker, 2005 Teacher of the Year, Georgia) he understood the tenuous nature of education and how much a good school relied on image, how little it required of substance.
Clay’s mother’s had a quick tongue and a sharp wit, perfect for bringing grown men to their knees in the dark to weep silently like children, and Clay’s own talent was for shedding unnecessary light on the forgettable and the mundane. This was almost expected of one who overshares–eventually all of the large stories will be taken.
“Red or blue,” was the original caption for the photo of his ties. He had staged them beautifully, his rapidly cooling Starbucks accenting the background. He is partially nude and will most definitely be late, but this will be a beautiful photo and he must retain evidence of this moment for posterity. Deep in his subconscious he considers how lonely the ties make him, or perhaps not the ties themselves, but something. . .what is it? but the thought surfaces as little more than an insecurity about the possibility of a stain on the blue tie.
The caption serves many purposes: the filter he chose changes the color scheme, so he must identify the color for his patient followers. He also desires feedback, or, rather, attention. He isn’t afraid to say it. He loves the way he looks when he is taking the photo, whether or not he is in it. Perhaps he should mention donkeys and elephants? He checked his phone ten minutes ago and discovered that he had one like for the photo posted from the stadium. He considers deleting it, but changes his mind. They’ve only had a few hours to respond.
He chooses the caption, “Red or blue: never know when you’re going to be a democrat or republican!” He gives his phone a satisfied smile.
In the end he chooses blue. In ninth grade a girl (Sasha? Sarah? Antoinette?) told him his eyes were cornflower blue like those which grew in her grandmother’s garden. He wasn’t particularly fond of blue then, gardens, or Sasha for that matter, but he very much liked the compliment.
Upon exiting his house Clay notes a bird nest erected in one of the bushes beyond his stoop. He considers taking a photograph, but he will assuredly be late. He toys with the idea of a caption in his mind. He will use god here. It makes sense. After he will toss the nest across the street–bird are vermin and have no use here.
As Clay pulls from his driveway he discerns a fawn in the field just beyond the fence of his house. He considers the thrill of the hunt: he imagines what it would be like to view the fawn from the lens of a scope. He cherishes his time in nature, the moment right before the light in the life he holds goes out; in this moment he feels alive and godlike. He drives past the fawn, smiling at himself. Had he had time and season the fawn would belong to him; now it is free to grow and roam in the woods beyond his house. Those woods belong to him, as does all of the land and all of the things this side of the dirt road.
Clay tucks all thought of the fawn away and drives easily to work. He pulls into his designated parking space and it occurs to him as it does every morning that he has surpassed the expectations of others. His mother. His family. His friends. Her. He knows he shouldn’t have others so often on his mind, but he can’t help it. Before he exits his truck he pulls out his phone again.
Before unlocking the door to the building he takes a quick stroll around campus. Dew clings to the hem of his pants and a cool breeze kisses his cheeks. Campus is beautiful in the silent dark, and for a moment he holds his breath and stares out into the loneliness.
Then he pulls out his phone and shares the moment.
Before he can put it away he receives a text: running late; can someone unlock my room?
He sends a response with a smiling emoji, but his own face never moves.
He lingers for a few moments checking emails mindlessly. He adjusts his tie and enters his office.
He has a smile that he has practiced for so long it doesn’t sting as much now as it once did. He smiles his way through the cacophony of “good mornings,” and through the various “can I talk to you for a minute,” and even the early morning referrals. He offers this smile robotically before she catches his eye. His eyes narrow as he focuses on her, the rest of the world tuned out.
She walks as though she has been here for as long as he has. Her head is high, high enough for him to discern her neck. She isn’t tall, but you don’t notice. Not at first. She walks as though the place is hers, or one day might be. This shouldn’t bother him and she shouldn’t so often be on his mind, but he can’t help it.
She came and wanted to be a part of a team and this shouldn’t bother him, but it does.
As if she can feel his gaze she turns abruptly and meets it. She holds his eyes until he tears his away.
She makes him angry.
He knows what she says about him. His school is like a small town and he considers himself the mayor. It is his job to know. She’s small and new, but her words bother him all the same.
He sends a text to Venus—Did you finish Janine’s observation? I want that asap.
He receives the reply—on my list for this morning; I’ll send it to you after I’ve finished—almost immediately.
It isn’t that she’s beautiful. He’s certain that’s what she’s said. That’s one of the rumors he hasn’t heard, but he’s almost positive she’s said it.
He can hear it condescended from her lips now. “He hates me because he’s in love with me.” She’s said it.
Of course she has. She wears bright red lipstick that emphasizes the perfect bow of her lips. She is beautiful. She only wears black clothing paired with sky-high heels. She walks with her head high and when she chooses to look at him she always stares longer. She offers him a raised brow but she does not smile.
She tells others that this ship–his ship–is not his. She tells the others he is weak.
She tells them that he is lonely.
This bothers him even more than her arrogance. They listen to her.
Some hate her. They hate the way she talks and dresses, the way she sizes them up with a look. But they hate him more and they listen to her.
“Mr. Parker!” Her voice is low but not sultry, and yet the hair on his neck bristles. Her. He fixes the smile on his face and turns to her carefully.
“Hey Janine! How are you?” She hardly seems to notice the smile, her eyes scraping up and down the whole of him carelessly.
“I’m great. I just wanted to know if you might have time to talk to me this afternoon? I wanted to know how we’re going to address diversity in the curriculum? I’ve noticed that it’s extremely white, and I’m certain you want a culturally responsive and authentically inclusive curricula. Every opportunity for every student and all.” She offers him a tight smile at the end of her statement, her deep brown eyes searching his. He is stunned into silence for a moment.
A pin could drop in the hall. His throat constricts as he struggles to contain himself.
She is new. Too new. Who is she to ask questions?
His mother would think this is small. She would say it that way—“Clay, why are you so angry? This is all so small and mundane.”
“Check with Lydia,” he offers, turning away from her. “She’ll put you on my calendar.”
“Another thing—are you not getting my emails?” She has a tone. Her face is expressionless. But the tone is there. “I send you emails and I never receive any response.” A long moment passes before he answers her.
“Make sure you’re always copying Lydia on all emails.” He pats her arm as he brushes by her. “Thanks, Janine.”
He sends an email reprimanding the hourly staff on their continued use of the mass email. After this he walks into the lunchroom and the lunch ladies are conveniently too busy to meet his eye.
He inspects the trays of the kids in isolation for something to do.
“Mmm, school lunch,” he jokes so that he has something to say.
He attends a meeting that includes forty-five minutes of a mother berating him. He prides himself on his calm.
No ma’am, your daughter will still face consequences for skipping.
Yes ma’am, missing an entire class without permission is skipping.
No ma’am, it doesn’t take anyone an hour and a half to get from one side of campus to the other.
Yes ma’am, that is my boss.
He pulls out his phone again—he has ten texts. Two are from the same teacher from this morning stating she’ll be back late from a doctor’s appointment. He makes a note to keep an eye on her attendance. He needs to build his case carefully.
One is from the superintendent stating a review will be conducted soon.
One is from his mother telling him God loves him.
One is from one of the PE coaches asking for an administrator.
One is from the same PE coach stating never mind.
One is from a member of the old guard asking if she can meet with him during lunch to discuss a private matter that he overheard her complaining about publicly just this morning.
One is from Ms. Venus Pride-Hall, stating the observation was complete.
One is from her, stating that her kids are going to the lab.
One is from Starbucks, telling him he’s a gold star member.
He ignores all of them, opting to check his Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Two more likes, one comment, and a retweet.
He spends a few minutes selecting a song for his special announcements. They aren’t until Friday, but he likes to do a soundcheck early Friday morning and he doesn’t want to come unprepared. The kids like his announcements, he thinks.
She smirks when he passes her in the hall after, but then she smirks at him all the time.
She must know she is on his mind because she arrives promptly.
For the duration of their conversation she is pleasant and he wrestles with himself. He wants to yell at her. He wants to shout. He wants to stun her, to tear from her that calm exterior.
What meat does she eat that makes her grow so large? She is uncomfortable with Julius Caesar and would hate that reference. It makes him chuckle.
After she leaves his office Venus enters.
“Well,” he begins expectantly. Venus swallows visibly.
“She’s great. You’re not going to go into her room and see anything but good teaching.” For a moment he allows his shoulders to fall.
“But—“ Venus offers him an opening and he leaps.
“Yes?” He wills himself to prompt her calmly, but internally he’s singing.
“She wants to file a grievance against you.” Lava boils up inside him and burns.
How dare she?
“Why,” he asks, though he doesn’t actually care for the answer.
“She said that, and I’m quoting here, “if I died you would roll me under the desk and keep teaching.”” He pauses for a moment.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he responds, and Venus shrugs.
“That’s what she said.” He considers her words. He considers them for so long he fears they will leave a mark.
He swallows hard, calming himself. “I think it’s time to have a serious conversation with her.”
He sends a message to Lydia to ask Janine to swing by his office at 3:30.
His discussion with Janine might as well take place in a vacuum for all he hears.
At some point she tells him that he is a tyrant. She doesn’t use those words, but she implies it. Her eyes harden as she speaks to him directly.
“You walk around and you don’t see anyone. You didn’t notice that last week when you asked Kentavious if he’d registered for College night that he was uncomfortable—he doesn’t want to go to college. You know how I know? I spend time asking people things. You don’t listen. You only want to hear how great you are. You are so busy looking at all of the small details you don’t actually know what you’re missing. You’re missing the people. There are actual people behind those numbers.”
He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind her and briefly he wonders if he should have chosen the red tie.
He lowers his voice and he attempts to quell her anger.
“I don’t have to give you a reason. I like you. You’re not happy here.”
She interrupts him. “It isn’t the place I’m unhappy with.” His heart skips a beat. There she is again.
He sees her clearly now. Everyone else is wearing the school colors. They know the rival. They know to smile at him and they know to be colorblind. They know to ask the right questions and give the right numbers and even the ones that look like her know how to behave.
Why doesn’t she know that? Why is she wearing black even now? Even her hair—it coils from her head reaching the sky, seeming to defy him.
“You aren’t right for here,” he tells her. She is stunned. He can see it in the way she blinks rapidly, the way she jerks back as if slapped.
At last he has silenced her.
He continues while he has time. “We just aren’t a good fit for you. Do I think you’ll be great somewhere else? Absolutely.”
He thought she would cry. The last time this happened the woman cried.
Janine’s face is dry, her eyes dark and deep.
Her voice is passionate and fierce, and he has to lean forward to hear her. “In a few years you’ll still be here wondering why they don’t all like you. It’s because this place is small and even smaller with you in it. You’ll have my resignation in ten minutes.”
She must note his surprise because she smirks, “I’ve had it ready and waiting. After so many threats it loses its appeal. You’ll receive, I’m certain, your copy of the grievance filed yesterday. Take your time with the response. I wouldn’t want you to get tangled in a lie.”
She turns on her heel and leaves his office.
He turns to send the email to human resources. She is a problem and he wants to make certain he’s covered himself.
He loses himself for awhile in the email, because when he turns back he discovers a Starbucks cup on his desk—Venti. Hot. The handwritten note says “we love you, Clay!”
He smiles to himself, sighing heavily.
As he leaves to head to the field he receives a few greetings. The lunch ladies still don’t meet his eye.
A letter from her lay in his box. He reads it with shaking hands, a burning anger devouring him from inside. He hates her. She is a troublemaker and he hates her.
In the stadium his voice reverberates all around and when he says cheer they cheer.
He shakes hands and kisses babies and his mouth hurts from the talking.
He gets that tell-tale thrill down his leg when he is introduced as the principal.
This is his town. He is the mayor. He has earned this. Who cares about her and her grievance? She’ll be gone soon and they will never mention her again.
On the ride home he belts out the words to the song half a beat behind.
He stands in front of the door for a long while, wishing he could see the sun from his house.
In the dark loneliness he feels a god.
As the door closes behind him he thinks he hears a car pulling up the drive.
He pulls his phone from his pocket at the same time, though, and he is too busy checking his phone to open the door again.
He can’t see from the windows, and as he disappears into the empty house he curses those small useless things and wonders not for the first time if he is too big for them, if they are not too small even for him. In the deep, too deep to surface but present enough that he is touched by the thought, Sterling Clay Parker wonders what visitors he missed, what small slips of sun they keep just beyond his reach.