Middle School Winner
Pulling away from his mother’s damp grasp, the boy turned the knob on the door labeled 24. His father ran his hand through his short, trimmed hair. The boy watched him pull in his lapel tighter to his white collared shirt. The boy had thought it impossible to be that clean, until he spotted the stain on the collar, from a paint spill not a few weeks ago. His father almost never got a new shirt. They entered room twenty-four, the boy’s teacher waiting for him in front of a wide, lacquered desk. Two cups stood on the table, one filled with pencils and pens, the other filled to the brim with coffee. A short pile of white papers stood neatly organized on the desk. The boy’s teacher strummed the top corner of the stack with her thumb. The teacher looked at him as his family sat down, and the boy looked at his mother’s shoes. They were very old, too small, yet they always seemed to look new and highly polished. The boy’s teacher’s feet bore new red glistening slippers with ribbons tied neatly in a bow.
“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez.” Mrs. Anderson greeted them.
“Good evening, Mrs. Anderson,” the boy’s parents said, their voices more unsure than whenever they talked to him.
“Why are we meeting today? Is there something you want to tell us? Is our son in trouble?”
“No, your son is one of my strongest students–both in his schoolwork, and his character.
His mother opened her mouth to say something, but the words seemed to evaporate before she could say them.
“As you know, I have sent your son home with a permission slip for our field trip. It is taking place tomorrow.”
The boy’s parents nodded without acknowledgement.
“It is not like him to forget something like this. I gave it to him two weeks ago.”
The boy looked at his mother’s face. Her mouth was a tense line. The boy went through all the emotions she could be feeling right now. What caused those lips, usually so ready to sing and laugh and smile, to look so different? Why were they so tense, why was she implementing so many boundaries around things she usually spoke freely about? Why were her eyes dipped in a pool of fear and tinted with dread? Mrs. Anderson’s loud voice broke the short silence.
“Is there some reason he can’t go, or can you sign the form now?” she said as she placed it in front of the boy’s parents. The boy waited for his parents to answer, but all that followed was silence. Still, Mrs. Anderson’s eyebrows were pointed upward, but her eyes were warm, making the boy feel like she really cared. The boy followed his mother’s gaze to the walls of the classroom. They were a light green, bits of paint had been peeled off where tape had been. The lyrics of the song The Grand Old Flag were tacked to the wall. Spanish vocabularios were clipped on a clothesline strung from one end of the room to the other. A whiteboard had written on it the boy’s class schedule.
“Trip is to City Hall?” his mother inquired, covering her mouth. The boy could tell she was biting her lip.
“Yes, that is the place.”
The boy’s mother looked away.
“If it is about the cafeteria money, can I arrange something?” Mrs. Anderson said.
The boy’s father raised his chin. His jaw set, and the boy could see the hurt in his father’s eyes. The boy’s father looked at Mrs. Anderson for a very long two seconds. Then his father opened his mouth and said with a newfound strength, “That won’t be necessary.”
“I didn’t mean…” her face turning red as she made a sound like her breath was caught in her throat, “I was just concerned about your son’s grades. You see, there will be an essay to write about this field trip, and since your son is doing so well with his grades and all…” Mrs. Anderson’s voice trailed away again. The boy vaguely noticed the emphasis in his teacher’s voice that he was doing well. His mother lightly kicked his father’s shin, gaining his attention.
“¿Qué dijo ella sobre las calificaciones?” she said.
His father twitched a little.“Ella dijo que obtendría calificaciones más bajas si fuera al campo.”
The boy’s mother was still.
“Is there something troubling you? Maybe I can help?”
A sentence in a new tongue reverberated in the boy’s head, wishing he knew the answers to all the questions floating in his mind. The boy heard his mother whisper something to his father, but it was indistinguishable. The only words he made out of it were “la migra.” Those were words he had heard almost every day this past year. Those people Papi admired, talked about, cared about, worked with, who came here illegally might be in danger because of la migra. An inferno of questions about his family rushed through the boy’s head.
“Papi, why do you look so afraid?” the boy questioned.
“I’m not. Why don’t you step outside to get a drink from the fountain?” His eyes told the boy it was not only a question but a command. Still, the boy pushed on, his thoughts racing.
“Then why are pulling on the collar of your shirt, like you always do when something is wrong?”
Mrs. Anderson looked at them with her brows furrowed, seeming to listen attentively to everything they were saying. When Mrs. Anderson spoke, her words were calm, and soothing.
“Let’s just forget all about this. He doesn’t need to go on this field trip. I’m sure your son has a bright future ahead of him.” The boy’s parents stood up and his father turned to the teacher.
“Thank. You.” With that they walked away. The boy looked back at his teacher. Their eyes met, only for a brief moment, before Mrs. Anderson stood up, and winked. The boy winked back.