Kirie Pedersen’s short story The Observer first appeared in volume 34 of Emrys Journal. The Emrys Foundation strives to forge a lively community of writers, readers and storytellers.
You could tell she loved the students. Once, on one of the rare occasions she visited the faculty lounge, some bearded fellow, that Edmund guy, was holding forth, perhaps to impress Purdo.
“I’m not the type to go jump in the sea for my students,” he said. He looked around the room, and then caught sight of Sahari, the new girl on the block. As usual, she was dressed inappropriately: some kind of tiered white skirt, a white peasant-style blouse with puffy sleeves and ribbons at the neck, and those heavy black boots she wore no matter what. “If you know what I mean.”
Sahari opened her eyes wide and lifted her arms as though to fling herself from the chair where she hunched over a container of some mess of grated beets. “But I am!” A bit of beet clung to her lower lip. “I would jump in the sea for my students!”
The room went silent for a beat, and then everyone returned to their previous conversations about how irritating the students, even worse the parents, and what about that party this weekend at Purdo’s? They lifted sandwiches to their mouths and chewed.
She would have jumped in the sea with her students, all right. Nothing I could do to save her.
After he hired Sahari, Purdo assigned me to keep an eye on her. “I need to hire a woman,” he said. “We’ve got to bring in more kids from beyond the bridge.” He laughed. We both knew what he meant: the part of the city where the black and Latino and Native American kids lived, the single-parent families. Where at least once a month, someone, often a child or teenager, but also their mothers, jumped off the overpass and landed amidst screaming tires and shattered glass. “Bring up the numbers,” he said, “Even if that means lowering standards.” The program I helped manage, in which musicians, artists, dancers, writers and scientists served as mentors to small groups of students, was based on tests.
Purdo was annoyed that the new grant stipulated that now half the instructors represent the populations served, and that more women were hired as well.
“Ninety percent of the target population are people like me,” I told Purdo. “And half the students are girls.”
“You’re my token,” Purdo said. “You at least know how to act.”
I do not defend my role. My job was merely to observe. And I have a family to support. My Sally, no matter how much she despises me now, won’t be raising our girls on her own.
For the interview, Sahari’s hair was cut like that of a school boy from some past era, a bob trimmed around a bowl. Stringy and smelling slightly sour, as though washed in some odd herb, her hair hung around her small, square face. Her anxiety showed in her fingers and hands. She sliced her ragged cuticles along her lips, glanced around furtively until she saw me watching, and then she clasped both hands between her knees. She wore an odd assortment of leather and woolen garments, and the unlaced boots we all laughed about until a few years later when everyone was wearing them, including my wife. Her jacket had a large hood, and emphasized the impression of a child cast alone into the wilderness.
“I sat up all night in my friend’s office writing my resume,” she said.
“You don’t have a computer?” I had to ask her that.
She tugged at her hair. “It got stolen,” she said. “I’ll have to save up for another one. Or maybe you’ll have one for me here?” She didn’t look up, and none of us looked at her. Later, she told me that she became physically ill at the thought of the interview, and toward the end, almost every day before work, she vomited.
“Like when I used to drink and use,” she said, glancing up at me through her tangles of hair. “Drugs, I mean.” She told me this later, laughing a little, as if everyone shared such intimate details with strangers.
She was one of those females who appear plain when subdued, which for her was almost always, but who become something unearthly when excited. When she was with the students, it was as if someone lit something inside her, as if she was healing herself through those children, just drinking in their words and holding them up for the children to see themselves reflected back as whole.
During the interview, she was neither plain nor glowing. There were five of us there, as required, but Purdo had given each of us formula questions, and we simply read from our assigned cards.
“Do you have anything else you’d like to ask us?” I asked at the end.
“I’d like to tell you something,” she said, leaning forward in her chair. “I want this job more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”
She was like something Purdo would pick off a tray at a cocktail party and devour in a single bite.
“Yes, I know you do, dear,” Purdo said, and then he waited for her to leave. “We’ll take her,” he said the moment she walked out the door.
“What about the other candidates?” I asked. The regulations stipulated we interview three.
“I’ll take care of that,” he said.
He told me to wait a week before I let her know. “Keep her vulnerable,” he said, and he stood, dismissing us back to our warrens and cubbies.
I refuse to become emotionally involved in the affairs of this department, the endless stream of small hacks and larger ones, all arrogant and posturing on this tiny stage. If I invested myself, I could never survive, and survival, for me, is essential. I have no apologies for that. But from the beginning, this one tugged at me.
“I haven’t been able to draw for a year,” she said when I showed her the tiny office without windows to which Purdo assigned her. The room had been a janitor’s closet and still smelled of mold and disinfectant. “I had a problem with drugs.” She tugged at her sleeve as if to pull it up to show me the scars, and I smiled and stepped back out into the hall. She tagged along like a child extracting a promise. “I’m one year clean today.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not a secret!” she said, tossing back her hair. “I’m proud.”
When I reported this to Purdo, he laughed. “An addict,” he said. “Just what we need. Maybe next she’ll tell you about being raped.” He laughed again, and I chuckled too.
Along with classes at two other schools, he assigned Sahari to the sixth grade class at Lee, in the part of the city none of the others wanted to go. Edmund volunteered, but he was too arrogant, and the students didn’t like his beard. He drove out to Lee and met with the targeted students, but not a single one showed up for his second class. The other instructors would not go to Lee under any condition, and they had tenure so Purdo couldn’t force them.
For her first class, I went out to Lee with her. The students were rough little numbers, not one from a two-parent family. The administrators were glad to have the pull-out students removed from the regular classrooms, both because they tended to cause problems when bored, and to give the regular teachers a brief respite in their over-crowded classrooms.
When summonsed from their regular classrooms to the stage in the school auditorium, the only space the school had available for the art class, the students stared at Sahari’s hooded jacket and heavy unlaced boots.
“Where’s the horse?” a boy said. The principal had warned us not to include Kenny, but Sahari wanted to give him a chance. “This kid’s white, Native American, black, and Latino,” the principal said. “He has an IQ of 170, and he’s the smallest kid in the school, so he makes up for it by causing trouble.”
“Are his parents involved in his schooling?” I asked.
“His mother, yes. No father around that I know about.”
When Kenny showed up, a little late, I was about to send him back to his regular classroom, but Sahari was beaming at him. “You have the coolest eyes,” she said. Then I noticed that one of Kenny’s eyes was blue, and the other green. “Different colored eyes mean you’re psychic.”
I cringed, but the students, four girls and five boys, drew in around her. “I want you in a circle,” she said, and they looked at her as if she was their fragile prize. “I like to see your faces.” She sliced a torn cuticle across her lip.
“I guess I’ll tell you a little about myself,” she said. “I’ve been drawing since I was four. I drew picture stories.”
“Like comics?” Kenny asked in his overly-loud voice. The others shifted in their seats, and she held up her hands.
“Exactly!” she said. “Exactly like comics!” She laughed, her face filled with light. She reminded me of how my wife looked when we were first dating, and she would walk into a room and I would feel alive. “Only my drawings were awful,” Sahari said. “I can’t wait to see yours.” The students looked a little confused, and Sahari tipped her head and glanced around at their faces. She had a vibrancy she’d entirely lacked during her interview, or with me individually. It was as if she didn’t really consider herself an adult, and now she was, at last, meeting with her peers. “Do you know why you’re here? Did anyone tell you anything?” She looked up at me for a second, as if to corroborate my complicity. The students started to fidget in their seats.
Then she leapt to her feet and started to extract materials, boxes and rolls of paper, from a satchel she had lugged in from her car. “The district hired me because I’m an artist,” she said. The students settled back into the chairs. “You were chosen for this pull-out program because certain tests show you to be gifted.” I shook my head at her. We didn’t tell students that.
“I ain’t gifted,” Kenny said. “Sounds like a disease.”
“We get graded for this?” another asked.
“All right. Forget I said anything. Let’s draw.” She lifted a box of pencils and shoved it into the hand of the nearest boy. “Pass this around. Move in closer. Watch me.” In seconds, the students pulled their chairs into a tighter circle. Every eye was on her face, and their bodies tensed forward as each extracted a pencil from the box. “We’re going to create a person.”
“A person?” Kenny said. “How do you do that?” She extracted a roll of paper, unfurled it, and taped a sheet to the wall. Moving quickly with her own pencil, she sketched Kenny, pursing her lips as she glanced at him and then created him in larger form on the empty sheet. “By the way,” she said. “If you don’t want to be part of this class, you don’t have to,” she said. Again, I shook my head, remembering the response to Edmund, how nobody showed up for his second class, but also watching how the students kept moving in closer as she captured the essence of Kenny’s sharp jaw, hunched shoulders, and strange distrustful eyes.
“I’ll be back next week,” I said. I pretended to tiptoe out, thinking I’d get a laugh, but nobody looked up. Just as I reached the door, Sahari glanced up and flashed a smile so bright that for a moment, I felt something like shame.
As the principal had predicted, Kenny continued to challenge her. “This is a dumb class,” he said at the second session. “I’m going back to real school.” He stood up and pushed his chair back out of the circle.
Sahari smiled. “I’ll miss you,” she said. “But it’s your choice.”
He hesitated a moment. “Come on, everyone,” he said. “This is stupid.” He headed for the door.
The others stayed. A large girl, Shaniqua, with shoulder-length braided hair, glanced at the others. “I think he’s wrong,” she said. “He should have stayed.”
“He’s flunking math,” a boy said. “Maybe he needs to study.”
I could have told Sahari the boy would leave, not that these students would confide in me. In my white shirt and jacket and tie, I was a traitor, an other, but I knew how they thought because I would have done the same. I had done the same.
She continued to do well with the rest of the students, and Kenny, a troublemaker no matter where he went, was no great loss. But then, she told me, the fourth week he returned. Sahari assigned him to be editor of the magazine she was creating from the students’ sketches and drawings.
“How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you get them to cooperate?”
“I love them.”
I put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. As always, I could not believe her naiveté. “I’ve been around this business fifteen years now,” I said. “I’ve never heard anyone say that.”
She stared at me as though astonished. “Say what?”
“That they love the students.”
“Then why would anyone be here?” Sahari asked. That was when I knew for sure she’d never last, and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.
Despite or perhaps because of her success with the renegades and outcasts at Lee, from the first Sahari hit it off wrong with other faculty and, and course, with Purdo. She seemed to have no idea how an institution worked. Really, she had no idea of how anything worked: how life itself worked. She was like a ten-year old, the same age as the class at Lee. With the rest of us, she was playacting, guessing at grownup rules and always falling short. Yet like Kenny, she also possessed an arrogance. She looked around for whoever was in authority, and she wanted to bring him down.
Once, I told her she reminded me of a ten-year old. I meant this as a gentle suggestion to alter her attire and attitudes. She brightened. “That makes sense,” she said. “That’s around the time I started using.” She glanced up at me, and then away, as if flinching at the contact. “I probably have to start all over, growing from there.”
“Keep that girl away from me,” Purdo said after her first attempt to discuss Kenny. She wanted to expand the program at Lee. “I don’t want to hear that crap!” I raised my eyebrows and smiled. “Troubled children indeed. Who the fuck does she think she is?”
“She loves them,” I said, and I laughed. “Single parents and all. Now she’s invited the parents to an exhibit of their children’s art.”
“You gave permission for that?”
“She didn’t ask.”
William Tripp, one of our region’s foremost nature photographers, disparaged her as well. “She asked to borrow a camera,” he said. “Then she wrote me this bizarre note telling me she was hurt when I refused. I’ve had enough cameras broken to know not to let girls touch them!”
Another time, I was talking in the hall with Bentley, our concert pianist and composer. Sahari stopped and shifted on one foot as though to talk. Then she moved off again, an odd smile on her face. “Arrogant little tit, isn’t she?” Bentley said, and I could tell he meant for her to hear. In her hooded jacket and boots, she wandered the forest with no idea about protective coloration. “Why did Purdo even hire her?”
“Grant requirement,” I said. “Quotas.” Bentley glanced at me as if wondering what quota I might be filling, and I excused myself and moved away down the hall.
She dreamed about the children every night, she told me. Dreamed her way into being a good teacher. “I teach myself by teaching the kids,” she said. Kids were begging to be in her classes, not just at Lee but at the two other schools to which she was assigned. They didn’t want to be with Edmund or Bentley or Tripp. Just hers. She was messing up the program.
It was Kenny Taylor who saved us. He screwed up one too many times in his regular classes and was told that as punishment, he could no longer attend hers. Since it was now the one thing he valued, why not take it away. Sahari screwed up even worse. Though I warned her, she went straight to Purdo. She begged him to let Kenny stay. I’m not sure what exactly she said that so offended him, but the next day, Purdo described exactly what he wanted me to do. One at a time, I was to meet with the students in her classes. He even wrote out a script. I was to ask, “What does she say? We need to evaluate her so the program can continue.”
“Find something, anything I can use,” Purdo said. “I’m depending on you.” He gave me a look that suggested he doubted my ability to perform. I drove straight out to Lee. The first student I spoke with, Shaniqua, looked at me with utter disgust. “We know what you’re doing. We won’t help you fill your pages of shit.” She must have talked with the others, or they all felt the same, because not one student told me anything Purdo could use.
“I came up empty,” I told him. But this bothered Purdo not in the least. He instructed me in what he called “the process,” as if I didn’t already know exactly what that was.
“When we want to get rid of someone here,” he said, “We do it. You know that. Or you should.” He gave me a glance as if to indicate just how disposable I was.
“I tried,” I said, although I knew I hadn’t exactly tried hard enough. My hands weren’t clean.
As always, Purdo wrote his instructions on a yellow legal pad. “She’s to think these are negative notes from the students,” he said. “Make sure she can’t see.” When I hesitated, he said. “Do it today.”
I had to do the dirty work, but regulations required Purdo be present. My office has floor to ceiling windows that face out into the hall, and as they passed, other faculty and staff looked in. They knew the meaning of the closed door and that particular arrangement of chairs. When Sahari came in, she was beaming, as if we were taking this opportunity to chat about the program. “Coffee?” I asked, but she shook her head. Then she looked at my face and at Purdo, and you could see her, literally see her begin to shake.
“Sit down,” I said, and I tried to smile. Purdo was humming, leaning back in his chair. In a moment, I expected him to remove his shoes and place his feet on the table. He’d done it before.
My office has a large round table, and she, Purdo and I sat equidistantly apart. She was scared. You could tell she was scared. She must have been a little stunned to drive clear out to Lee and find her classes “excused,” and to find herself invited to administration for this meeting.
“Are we here to talk about Kenny Taylor?” she asked.
To be safe, I had placed a pile of books between her and the legal pad that sat in front of me. Purdo had instructed me to find a smaller chair for her, so that both of us sat at a higher level. She moved to the edge of her seat, her chest barely reaching the edge of the table. Purdo leaned back so it was difficult for her to watch both of us at once.
I glanced down at the legal pad. “You look like you’re going into shock,” I began.
“When I went to Lee today, the students wouldn’t look at me in the hall,” she said. “What did you say to them?” I did not like her tone. Was she going to pull some kind of histrionics? I wondered how we would explain to the grant board how our “marvelous find” had soured so quickly. But at that moment, I only wanted to complete Purdo’s mission. The process exhausted me, the trapped hostility of the students, their hatred of me so palpable, and their ability to comprehend my purpose. Of course they wouldn’t look at her. They knew she was now as doomed as they were.
I stacked and then re-stacked Purdo’s sheets of yellow legal paper. “Actually, I spoke with each of your students earlier today,” I said. “At all three schools.” Although I hadn’t smoked for some years, I wanted a cigarette more than I’ve ever wanted one in my life. I reached out as if to touch her arm. She shrank back.
“Don’t,” she said.
“It hurts me to hear you talk like that,” I said. “I want to help you. I tried to defend you.” She would never know I meant that.
“I need defense?” She folded her hands in front of her. “You needed to defend me?”
“I can spare you the details if you’d like,” I said. I glanced again at the sheets before me.
“Don’t spare me a thing.” She unclasped her hands and opened them on the table, cupping them as if inviting me to fill her palms. “I want to know exactly what my students said.”
Purdo flinched, and then his lips tightened. “Look, Chickpea,” he said. She was forced to turn in her chair to look at him. “I know it’s getting close to cocktail hour. Or is it shoot-up time?” She looked as if the blood had drained from her body. “We’ve tried to be nice here. But I’m going to talk to you straight, as my friend and colleague here seems incapable of doing. I tried to help you. I hired you because I knew you’d had some bad times, knew you needed help.”
“I never asked for your help,” she said.
“Now, Honey,” Purdo said. “Your voice is shaking.” He turned to me, smiling, and then he actually winked. “Give her a tissue,” he said, just as he’d written in the instructions. I pushed the box in her direction.
Purdo stood, took a step toward her, and patted her shoulder. “I’m sorry you want to leave us, but I accept,” he said. “I’ll be glad to give you a good rec.” He shot me a look. “Any time,” he added. He opened the door, dispersing the small group of staff who had clustered outside the tall windows, and he disappeared down the darkened hallway.
I held out the box of tissues. With what appeared to be her last bit of energy, she knocked it from my hand.
“You’re sick,” she said. “Oh Jesus, you’re all so sick. I’m going to report this.” Her hands were shaking. “I’m going to.”
I smiled at her as Purdo had, and for a moment, I despised myself. “If you need help cleaning out your office, I’ll be glad to assist,” I said. “We’d hate to have to turn in a report on what we might find there.”
“I hate your guts.” She sounded like a child. As, really, she was. When she left my office, she ducked her head. The clerks and assistants who had moved away when Purdo left stood staring. They didn’t even pretend to look away. The truth was, they hadn’t liked her much either. Even they’d known it was only a matter of time.
I waited a few moments, and then left myself. As I passed the women’s restroom, I could hear her inside retching. I meant to return to my office, but instead I left early so I would never have to see her again.
The next day, nothing remained in the windowless closet that had served as her office. She must have come in at night to remove every trace of herself. She even left her key on the table in my office. There was only one small problem. In my hurry to leave, I’d forgotten the legal pad with Purdo’s script as to what I should say.
I asked the custodian if he’d taken anything from my office. He seemed offended. “You know I’d never do that,” he said. “Sir.”
I don’t usually speak with my wife about work, but that night I was too agitated to sleep. Sally had just put our daughters to bed, and she was tired, lying against her pillow as if crushed by the weight of the day. I knew it was too late, and that it was better I keep the entire sordid bit to myself. Just once, I thought, I would reach out for soothing of my own. But when I told Sally what had happened, her face turned as pale as Sahari’s had.
“You wolves,” she said. “You filthy wolves.” I leaned toward her, and she shrank away. “No,” she said. “Not wolves. Wolves would be more kind.”
“So I’m alone in this?” I said. Didn’t she realize that if I succeeded, I might someday sit in Purdo’s chair? “It’s not like I’m ordering drone strikes,” I said, and I laughed. I reached over to take her in my arms, but she rolled to the far side of the bed.
“Don’t touch me,” she said. “Don’t even think of touching me.”