Mrs. Geiger’s substitute teacher was blond, glittery, and had a smile like the snarly grin of a Pomeranian. Had Mrs. Geiger been allowed to choose her substitute, I wondered, or had she simply been assigned by whatever powers ran the Tippecanoe School Corporation? Was she a friend of Mrs. Geiger’s? Did they, for instance, exchange holiday trinkets? Fruitcakes, roasted cashews, those massive tins of popcorn?
If so, then I was jealous.
It was 1996 and I was a shy, long-haired second grader, an only child with few friends and a knack for being quiet. I was outgoing, but didn’t know it; smart, but hadn’t discovered it; affectionate, but lacked recipients. Summers, I collected cicada shells from the trees around my neighborhood and I kept them in a shoebox. When I carried the box, it would tip and the shells would roll over themselves, long-ways inside—cicada claws snagging chipped eye globes, backs bending inward along exit wounds, all of them brittle and wearing down into dust.
Mrs. Geiger’s family had had an emergency, said the substitute. She wouldn’t be back for the rest of the week.
So I cried.
Not because the emergency had happened, obviously, or that the family must have experienced some great trauma. I didn’t know them and empathy was years beyond me.
A second grader’s week is just so long.
Because it was snowing, it was decided that we would have to stay inside for recess.
The substitute was at a loss. What would she do with us for an hour? I’m sure she assumed that this had happened before, that there must be games or toys hiding in a cupboard somewhere. She instructed us to scour the room.
I didn’t find any games, but beside a box of flashcards in the corner of the room, I did find a stack of colored butcher paper. The sheets were cut into these incredibly long, child lengthed beauties. The possibilities. I remember jumping onto a chair, waving one of the giant papers around my body. I said, “Hey everybody, let’s make the biggest Christmas card ever! For Mrs. Geiger!”
So I must have been that kid.
I was the girl that worshiped the teacher.
And it’s true: I did. It started when she told me that she played the Jurassic Park CD during quiet times especially for me, because it was my favorite. That seems small, but I was small. It was everything. Or, It was enough to inspire the painfully silent girl to stand on a chair and address a classroom of eyes.
For the entire week that Mrs. Geiger was gone, it snowed. Each recess, we stayed inside and worked on the Christmas card. We decided it would be a night scene, with Santa flying across the sky of the entire world. I remember punching a lead pencil through the sheet of black background, how I had the idea to layer a piece of yellow paper behind. The yellow peeked through the pencil punches, revealing shy, second grade stars.
By the end of the week, we’d used the entire stack of paper.
When Monday came, I did not fall asleep against the bus window on the way to school. I sat in my seat, humming. Today was the day, was the day, was the day…
But Mrs. Geiger did not enjoy her Christmas card. She was furious. It was the paper. She’d been saving it for a lesson plan. A project. A something. There was the yelling and I felt my face sliding off onto the desk, my personally responsible face. I had been the instigator. I had found the paper and made the suggestion and punched the holes for the stars.
It was me. It was me. It was me.
But that wasn’t even it.
I had stood on a chair.
I had shouted.
I had been misunderstood.