by Eloise Hawking
You could feel the excitement on the school bus today. The kids were usually in a quiet stupor early in the morning, but everyone seemed full of vigor today. As I boarded the bus and made my way to find a seat, I noticed a sea of black and orange, our school colors.
Today was Spirit Day—a day when the student body was encouraged to wear the school colors because it was the Homecoming game for the football team tonight. It always felt like Halloween every time we celebrate Spirit Day.
“Hey, Em, “ I said, sliding into the seat next to her.
“Mornin’,” she replied.
I noticed that Emily was completely decked out in orange and black, with paw prints on her cheeks. She was wearing long, black gym shorts, mismatched orange and black knee socks, and an orange t-shirt with “Paw Power” emblazoned across the chest. When she leaned forward I noticed that she had a number 77 on her back.
“Duct tape?” I asked.
“Glow in the dark, duct tape” Emily corrected.
My friend had a thing for duct tape. She collected it. Emily had nearly every color ever made. She made things with it like wallets and purses and gave them to people for Christmas presents. She had silver duct tape, camouflaged duct tape, and even Hello Kitty duct tape. I have to admit, as quirky as it was, I thought it was an awesome collection to have. I often thought of starting my own stash, but it wouldn’t be cool to copy your best friend’s idea.
“I thought Wally was number 78?” I asked her in reference to her 275 pound lineman that was her next door neighbor.
“He is,” Emily retorted, “but 8’s are too hard to make with tape, so I made another 7 instead. Close enough.”
The bus rumbled into the school parking lot and dropped off 60 noisy kids. We walked down the hallway and made our way into the first classroom on the right—the one with the best view in the whole school. Our school sat up on top of a ridge. This of course gave us the best sledding hill in the county to enjoy at recess time during the long, snowy winters. It also gave us a great view of the lake.
My town sat along the shores of Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes on the northern border of our country. I spent the summers swimming in its fresh water and springs and falls walking the shore line looking for beach glass. We would take rides on a rare, sunny winter day to look out at the ice dunes that formed along the beach. Mother Eloise would never let us near them to go exploring. One could never be sure where the ice was thin.
I could see the lake from my classroom and I never got tired of looking out of the window at it. Sometimes I’d envision myself jumping out of the school window and running north. I’d keep running until I hit the water and I would go for a nice long swim. That is why when we got the chance to pick our seats, I often opted to sit near the door instead of the window. The door not only gave me a quick escape route in case of an emergency, but it also was on the opposite side of the as the windows. I could pay attention a bit better seated away from the view of the outdoors. Even a kid knows her own limitations.
“Is Skippy still here?” asked Emily as we entered the room. She answered her own question by the look she displayed on her face. It was one of obvious disappointment. Emily did not like Mr. Nebauer our substitute teacher and always referred to him by his kid-given nickname.
“Good morning, Cats and Kittens. Happy Friday!” said Mr. Nebauer.
Our assigned teacher Mrs. DeAngelo had to have an unexpected knee surgery in the summer and she still was not well enough to start school this year. I really think it is all a big lie though. I think Mrs. DeAngelo chose to have knee surgery because we got Kenny in our class this year.
This was Kenny’s second trip through the fourth grade. Mrs. D had him last year and told Kenny’s parents that she didn’t think Kenny was quite ready to move ahead, and she’d like to keep him back another year. I would venture a guess that Mrs. D rethought all of that and decided it would be better to go under the knife than have Kenny again. Maybe she didn’t feel like dealing with Kenny on a bum leg. Therefore Mr. Nebauer was called in to cover for her until Thanksgiving.
Mr. Nebauer had been substituting in the school district for as long as I could remember and probably decades before that. He was a good and reliable substitute and all, but every time a job became available in the school district, they always seemed to hire someone else. The kids made mincemeat of the man. I did not know how he showed up for work, day in and day out, after all the fooling around we did on him.
“OOOOHHHH!” Emily whined. “Seriously! Does Skippy REALLY have to write TODAY IS SPIRIT DAY! On the board? Duh!?! Like we don’t know that, SKIP-PY,” she said, breaking his name into two syllables.
Mr. Nebauer was only about three inches taller than I was and I couldn’t begin to guess his age. My mother said that he substituted when she went to school here. I am not that great at math and every time I go to do the figuring, I confuse myself. Bottom line, Mr. Nebauer is pretty old.
He was dubbed the name Skippy years ago because of the way that he walked. Emily was merely carrying on an age old tradition. Mr. Nebauer did have an odd gait. He kind of looked like he was in a half walk, half skip at all times. To make matters worse, he carried a briefcase with him everywhere he went, even to lunch. We all tried to guess what was in there. Kenny was currently circulating the rumor that it contained body parts of dismembered children.
“Boys and girls, please take your seats. It is time for lunch count,” Skippy said while nervously straightening his gravy stained tie and smoothing over his hair.
I think Mr. Nebauer would look younger if he made an attempt to wear clothes that were a bit more fashionable. He always wore dingy white dress shirts that had yellow stains in the arm pits and neckties with matching yellow circles on them as well.
Mr. Nebauer had the oddest hairstyle a man could have. His head was bald on top, but he had hair in a half moon crescent running from ear to ear along the back of his head. He let that part grow really long and actually combed it over the top of his head. The piece that lay over top his head was so thin and straggly we could see his scalp anyway. What was the point? Occasionally on a windy day at recess, the wind would catch hold of that feather light hair and make it stand straight up like a kite string flying an imaginary kite. The kids would snicker and point, but Mr. Nebauer never seemed to get the joke.
I told my mom about Mr. Nebauer often this fall pointing out some of the man’s oddities. Mother Eloise shook her head and sighed. She said that Skippy only needed to find a wife and he’d be good to go. A woman’s touch was all the man needed.
“Mmmmm, mmmm, good! Now what will be today’s delicacy?” asked Mr. Nebauer to no one.
“Duh!” mouthed Emily to me. I was thinking the same thing. Who didn’t know that the schools served pizza every Friday? I knew the lunch count before Skippy even had to ask. Twenty-three for pizza today. That’s twenty-four kids, minus Nick who was allergic to cheese, had a constant runny nose, and carried an inhaler. Twenty-three pizza, one packer. Simple. Or so it should be.
“Now,” said Mr. Nebauer in his nasaly voice, “what is the cafeteria serving up today? Oh me, oh my! You’re in luck class. Pizza! And not only that. This menu reads that it is served with a fresh fruit cup and choice of milk. What a lucky day! Now how many takers do we have on this delish-dish?”
All twenty four of us raised our hands, including Nasaly Nick.
“For those of you who are feeling a little less brave today, the alternate choice is peanut butter and jelly, served with a slice of cheese, fresh fruit cup, and choice of milk as well. Now who is up for that challenge?” inquired Mr. Nebauer.
Ten more kids raised their hands. Mr. Nebauer seemed not to notice.
Mr. Nebauer half walked and half skipped towards my desk. “Ellen, please deliver this urgent note to the office immediately. The cafeteria staff will have to get right on this, pronto.”
That is another perk of choosing to sit next to the door. You always get asked to run errands. I like that. It gives me a nice break.
While I was walking to the office with the incorrect lunch note that read twenty-four pizza, ten pb&j, I heard a muffled voice around the corner. It was Mrs. Eloise, in the Husky suit, entertaining a Kindergartner.
“Here, it’s real,” she said, “go on---give it a pull.” She wiggled her hind end toward the little dude.
He reached out and gave the tail a quick yank. “HOOOWWWLLLL!” went Mrs. Eloise, making the Kindergartener jump back with surprise, then giggle with excitement.
Mrs. Eloise spotted me, turned in my direction, and I could see her eyes out of the uvula. “Lunch count delivery?” she inquired, holding out her paw to me. I sheepishly handed over the slip of paper.
Although I could not see her face, I knew she was frowning. “Fix that,” came the muffled demand beneath the furry head. “And tell your friends to be a little more original. That’s the oldest trick in the book. Skippy’s been falling for that since 1989.”
“I’m only the messenger,” I said shrugging. Mrs. Eloise tapped her back paw on the floor in impatience. “You’re the one who always says, Don’t shoot the messenger.”
“OK, I’ll fix it,” I said, snatching the note back. I grabbed a pen from the sign in table in the office and adjusted the lunch count to the correct number. I deposited it into the Lunch Count Basket.
When I returned to my classroom, I saw a white note sitting on the top of my desk. It was folded into one of those little neat footballs that the boys play with in school when they are supposed to be paying attention. The boys made fake little goal posts by putting their two thumbs together horizontally while holding their fingers vertically. Teachers had nice collections of these footballs on their desks stuffed away in their desk drawers.
I knew this one wasn’t for a game though. It was today’s Message of the Day, and it was up to me to pass the word along.
Curious to see what the word was today, I slid the note onto my lap and unfolded it quietly, all the while keeping my eyes fixed on Mr. Nebauer. I found maintaining eye contact makes the teacher think you are paying attention even when you really aren’t. Mr. Nebauer made eye contact with me enough times to know I was with him, so I took a moment to steal a glance at the note. It was in Kenny’s scratchy handwriting ,no doubt written with his chewed on pencil.
The note read: cof the word hairpeace at 10:00.
Stupid Kenny. He passed notes around like this every day.
Nock you’re books off you’re desk at 2:00.
Snif you’re noze at 1:30.
Hickcup after every time he says now class.
You always knew who they were from because the kid couldn’t spell to save his life, and had no knowledge of punctuation even on his second trip through fourth grade. I shook my head slightly and shoved it in my pocket instead of passing it along.
Mr. Nebauer caught my attention, “Ellen,” he said rather loudly. I jumped—my heart skipped a beat thinking that he had seen the note. “Will you lead your comrades into battle……..a battle of the minds that is………….It is time for Quest my dear girl. Quest students, you are excused for the next hour.”
Sometimes being the messenger means TELLING a message. Sometimes being a messenger means FIXING a message. And sometimes being a messenger means NOT sending a message. At this moment, I had a choice and I picked the latter.
Choice. Perhaps having one was The Key to All Things.