I liked English, but it was on the third floor of an old building with no elevator. There was nothing like running up those concrete stairs just to get stared at by my classmates and to watch the teacher’s slow walk over to the attendance screen on her computer. I had something like nine tardies in that class when I finally made a deal with the teacher. Every day that I was tardy, I stayed after and vacuumed her room.
One day I got to the top of the stairs, and there was this girl standing by the water fountain looking up. Right next to the fountain there’s a ladder that comes down from a hatch with a padlock on it. The ladder’s dusty, and the lock looks so rusted it couldn’t possibly open.
“What are you looking at?” I asked. I was already late, and another minute wouldn’t make any difference.
She jumped a little and then looked at me. Her glassy eyes took a moment to focus on mine. Crying does that.
“Nothing. Just never noticed that door before,” she said, and then she scuffed off, her shoulders hunched.
At the end of the period, my teacher was sitting at her computer entering grades. We don’t talk much while I’m vacuuming, but I liked to watch her expressions as she entered grades. That day she shook her head a lot. I finally couldn’t stand it any more. I turned off the vacuum.
“What is it, Ms. B?”
She stared at the screen for a moment before answering.
“Thirty kids in your class, an easy in-class assignment, and only twelve people turned it in.”
“I did it.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything else so I turned the vacuum back on and finished up. When I looked back over at her, she was holding her head.
“I’m losing them,” she said, but I didn’t think she was talking to me.
The next day, my friends and I went to the local falafel place, but the owner was there so the line went really fast. I told Geoff, my best friend who always drove us, not to flirt with the hot girl that worked the register so that we could actually be on time back to class. He wiped the tip of his nose vigorously a couple times, but he grabbed his bag and headed for the car. We were one of the first cars in the student lot. Geoff didn’t even look at me as I got out of the car. He was digging in his glove compartment for something.
I was early that day, really early, but there was another girl standing next to the water fountain looking up. And she was pretty much sobbing. I slapped my feet a little as I reached the top stairs so I wouldn’t startle her, too, and she wiped her eyes and ran into the bathroom around the corner. I could hear a bang as she kicked or hit something metal in the bathroom, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve been there. I just didn’t know what it was about some unused maintenance ladder that seemed to be making girls cry.
Geoff wasn’t in English with me, although he had been at the beginning of the school year. He had this thing with teachers who got in his face, and Ms. B would do that if she felt like you were wasting your life or being otherwise terminally stupid. When she did it to him after he walked in reeking of pot, he mouthed off to her, called her a non-school appropriate name, and rather than suspend him or send him to the dean, she suggested he change English classes. This was like the second week of school. He wasn’t crazy about his next English teacher, a guy who spoke in a monotone and had a comb-over, but he didn’t go often enough for that stuff to bother him. Where I had tardies, Geoff had cuts. I thought Geoff might go down the same path as his older brother who got his GED. Peter makes good money as an auto mechanic, and there are definitely worse things that Geoff could do. At least he couldn’t do drugs.
Anyway, moving on. After that day Geoff got me back to school on time, he stopped hanging around to wait for me to go to lunch. And he wanted me to know he wasn’t waiting because he would lay rubber when he saw me instead of pulling over and unlocking the back door like he used to do. Actually, when I really think about it, I guess Geoff didn’t hang around with me at all after that. Maybe he didn’t think it was about me being on time. Maybe he thought it was me judging him for smoking dope, for cutting class, for being who he thought he had to be. I don’t know.
I started eating in the cafeteria, which isn’t bad but it’s the same stuff every day. I spent a little time with kids from my English class, and we all talked about Ms. B and the number of kids that were failing. We were all a little worried about her. She used to be so funny but not any more. Maybe she thought why waste the energy when only half the students would even finish out the year. I talked with the other kids about what we could do, but none of them had any ideas either. Nobody makes you decide to do the work; you just do it or you don’t. I wish parents knew that, and I think they did when they were our age.
After lunch one day, I headed up the other set of stairs, the ones by the quad not the parking lot. It was sort of nice being leisurely on those stairs, taking a couple of minutes, using the railing. I was about to go left around the building, which would have taken me on a shorter route to Ms. B’s room, but then I decided I wanted to pass the ladder and the water fountain. I told myself it was because I was thirsty, but I had had a twenty-ounce soda at lunch. I really just wanted to see if anyone was under the ladder.
There was. It was Ms. B.
At the end of the semester, she turned in her resignation. Teaching jobs in our state were in demand, so they were able to fill the position after only a week of subs. The new teacher is a bit of a stickler, but I haven’t been tardy in a while. I have no choice but to be an at-school luncher now, ever since Geoff dropped out.
I brought my bolt cutters to school today. I hid them in my backpack because people might get the wrong idea and think I was going to rob lockers or something equally stupid. What I figure is, if the padlock is gone, they can all come back -- Ms. B, Geoff, whoever the girls were looking for -- but either way, at least I’ll know where they’ve all gone.