I remember sitting with my friend Eugenia under the wide-boughed maple trees, while the other kids played on the jungle gym and the swings. You could smell the cedar chips and dust in the warm air, even over here in the green shade.
The leaves rustled in the light wind overhead, and she asked, "So what's going to happen to all of us? We didn't do anything wrong... did we?"
I didn't really have an answer for her, because I didn't know. But I still said, "It'll be okay. Somehow."
We sat there and listened to the wind and the creaking of the swings, and it was nice, just sitting there together. Comforting. Because we had to go back in eventually, to the adults and the teachers. To the weirdness, and not knowing why it was weird. Of knowing something was going on, and the confusing questions, and no one would explain anything to us. And above all the condescension. Because we were kids. Children.
We didn't understand what was going on when Mr. Carpenter would pay so much attention to Tina. She had strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, and she was taller than most of us. He would linger by her desk when he spoke to the class. She was shy and would blush, look down at the floor or her desk. He would massage her back, her shoulders, her neck, his hands and fingers brown and calloused against her fair skin. He would praise her work in class. And he was always looking at her. Gazing at her. Drinking her up. It made the rest of us feel... Left out. Jealous. Ugly. But it wasn't Tina's fault. She didn't want the attention. We could see her confusion, the embarrassment. His attention was like a heat lamp, you could feel it even with your eyes closed, dry and hot against her face, tightening the atmosphere of the room.
Then there was the incident with the boa constrictor. We had several class pets in different terrariums; an old brown toad that glowered in a corner, a black salamander that buried itself in mud and muck, and a large boa constrictor. At least 5 feet long, it was sinuous and alien and utterly strange. All the boys in the class, myself included, thought it was so, so cool.
Mr. Carpenter, as a reward for some academic achievement, arranged a pizza party for the class. I remember the pizza arriving in boxes, grease from the cheese soaking through the cardboard, and the rich, pungent taste of the red tomato sauce. We ate and ate, gorged ourselves and laughed and made jokes. I think Andrew, the class prankster, tried to feed some cheese to the salamander and the toad, but they weren't cooperative.
But Mr. Carpenter had a surprise for us. He said, "It's not fair that you have a party, and the boa constrictor doesn't get to share. So I brought him a pizza party of his own." With that, he revealed a cardboard box that made noises, scratching and scritching. He opened it, and we crowded around trying to get a closer look. Inside was a white rat with pink eyes, looking up at us and sniffing the air.
Quickly upending the box into the glass terrarium, our teacher watched the rat fall and then freeze, its whiskers extended and eyes wide, its nose quivering as it processed this new environment. Too late. The boa struck so quickly that we couldn't follow its movement, grasping the head of the rat with its mouth and then twisting its coils around the white, furred body, squeezing and squeezing, the rat squeaking once and then silent. Still the squeezing, the tightening, crushing, the ballooning of the rat's rear, and then a burst of bright red and guts as its innards were smeared out onto the inside of the glass, steaming as the snake began to swallow the rat whole.
It happened so quickly. We were all in shock and the some of the girls started crying and the boys were quiet and Andrew was laughing, a nervous high laugh. Cheese and pizza and all forgotten, but that red tomato sauce, dripping from the pizza... and the rusty, pungent smell of blood... I couldn't eat pizza for a long time after that.
Mr. Carpenter laughed it off, taking swift control of the situation, and turned it into a lesson about predators and prey in the natural world. What was the big deal? Over the next couple of days, we watched the lump that was the rat, but now in the long belly of the boa. The blood in the terrarium grew its own white fuzz of mold, and the sated snake wasn't so cool to me anymore.
The tension in the classroom only increased as time went on. Something, something, something was wrong, wrong, wrong. He shouldn't be... looking at her like that. Shouldn't be... touching her that way. But he was just friendly, he was just our teacher, he was just Mr. Carpenter, goofy Mr. Carpenter... wasn't he? He told jokes and he was funny, he made it fun to learn, but... why was he doing these things?
I don't know who, but someone told another teacher. And all of a sudden there was the principal and the school counselor and someone who looked like a doctor maybe, and Mr. Carpenter wasn't there. We were all asked questions and it was scary and they made us feel uncomfortable, like we had done something wrong.
Did he ever touch us? Well, no, not really. Where did he touch you? But he didn't touch us. Did he touch Tina? Well, yes, but he just gave her backrubs. So he touched Tina? Yes, I guess, what do you mean by "touch"? When is touching more than touching? Why are all of you adults acting like we know what you're talking about when you won't explain what you really want to know?
Tina was crying, saying that she didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings and that she was sorry and she'd never do anything again and... And the adults stared and wrote things down on pads of paper and exchanged glances and sometimes they would leave the classroom and then come back. And then the principal told us that everything was alright, Mr. Carpenter was going to be gone for a while, we would get a new substitute teacher, nothing was wrong and there wasn't any reason to tell our parents. Or we could tell our parents if we wanted, but what was to tell? Tell your parents to call the principal if you want to make a fuss, but why make a fuss? There was nothing to make a fuss about. Nothing to make a fuss about. Nothing Nothing Nothing. Your substitute teacher will be fun, just you wait and see. And there will be a field trip, won't that be fun?
So the next day there was a substitute teacher. Then there was a field trip the day after that. We had extra long recess breaks over lunch for a couple of weeks too...
I'm sitting with my friend Eugenia in the shade, smelling the cedar chips and seeing the other kids laughing. I have a grass stain on the side of my jeans, but I don't care. If we don't think about what happened, concentrate on the fun, everything will be okay. Sitting and not talking is comforting and nice. The sky is bright blue and the clouds are moving fast and the wind is warm. If you just concentrate on the fun, everything will be okay again, somehow.