Qualifications (literary fiction)

I wrote this for a fiction class based on some experiences I’ve had working with kids. The names and identifying details have been changed. It’s fairly tragic, especially is you like kids. You’ve been warned.

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“We’ve only got enough kids to maintain one teacher so I’ve got to send one of you home and you’re the only one who can get Kordy to sleep.” Louise folded her arms over her spotless gray apron, smiling as if that ended the discussion. It sort of did, but not for the reasons Louise assumed. She thought she’d thrown down an unassailable truth. I just wanted the spinning from the circuitous argument to end.

And I was the only one who could get Kordy to sleep, or at least get him to stop screaming. Something else I wanted to end.

The daycare schoolroom would have to wait until either Kordy was napping or his mom came to pick him up. Amy shrugged and pulled her apron over her head to leave. I went to the crib that had been shoved into the three-year-old room so that one teacher could watch all the kids and Louise could hide in her office pretending to do paperwork while watching epic fail videos on her phone. No way was she laughing at state billing invoices for the workfare kids. Not that I could blame her. Being around the kids was depressing.

“I have a four-year degree, did you know that Kordy?” I asked in my best motherese. I lifted him out of the crib and settled him on my hip, adjusting his faded green romper where it bound up under his arms. “A four year degree and a teaching license. I am so overqualified. Did you know that?”

Kordy yowled in my ear.

“What’s ‘overqualified’ mean?” Jasmine asked.

Yeah, probably ought to remember the little pitchers in the room. “Don’t you worry about it.”

Jasmine tossed her perfect ringlets tied up in pink ribbons, spun around and dropped onto the gray industrial carpet. Her aunt took damn good care of that kid, despite her heritage. “Can you tell another story?” Jasmine asked.

I settled in an orange plastic chair in front of the window overlooking the playground and shifted Kordy into my lap. The gloomy scene outside was keeping the kids in and stir crazy so I really didn’t want to stare at it too. Carrie, Darina and Shay huddled in one corner sharing preteen secrets. A mixed group of six elementary age boys and girls built highways for the toy cars I found in the back of the closet last week.

Sarah wandered over as soon as I sat down and stood staring at me with her expressionless blue eyes. Broken bird. In three months working at the daycare, I’d never seen an expression on Sarah’s face or heard her say a word, which, at nearly four, she should be good at. Her brother sure as heck never shut up. Right now he was trying to direct the highway project. One of these days after work I ought to look up early signs of schizophrenia. According to Louise, Sarah and David’s mother had been diagnosed when she was carrying Sarah and their father lost custody of the kids because he was trying to care for them and his wife. Now the kids shifted between their grandparents and an uncle. The best arrangement that could be made right now, but horrific for their development. In Sarah’s adorable little face, I read a future of developmental delays, struggles and trust issues, compounding a genetic disposition for schizophrenia. I shifted Kordy so I could fit Sarah on my lap too.

Kordy’s yowling subsided to sniffles.

“Miss Geeeeeeenaaaaaaa.” Jasmine swayed on the floor like an interpretive dancer. “Please tell a story.”

Jasmine, another broken bird. Her half siblings, Troy and Stacy, were playing with the cars. Their father, the parent all three shared, was in jail on drug charges. Troy and Stacy’s mother worked as a prep cook. Jasmine’s mother, the sister of Troy and Stacy’s mother, was dead of an overdose. Jasmine was another one I saw a treacherous future for. Troy and Stacy merely faced a difficult one. Then again, it seemed like every kid at the center came with baggage of the holy crap variety.

I drew a deep breath to clear my mind. “Stone Soup?”

“Nah.”

“The Hedgehog Prince.”

Jasmine tapped her lips thoughtfully. “Nah.”

Like there was ever any question. “The Lucky Boy?”

Jasmine nodded her head, her curls bouncing.

“Okay. Once upon a time there was a family. The father was a seventh son and his wife was having their seventh child. A son.”

“Why can’t it be a girl?” Stacy asked, lured from the building project.

“Because this story is about a boy.”

Kordy gripped the neck of my shirt and pulled. I unwrapped his fingers and let him clutch my hand. As long as he wasn’t crying.

“You should tell a story about a girl,” Stacy said.

“That would be The Hedgehog Prince.”

“I don’t want to hear The Hedgehog Prince story,” Jasmine shouted.

“Okay, cool it,” I said before the two of them could really get into it. “Today we’ll do The Lucky Boy and tomorrow we’ll do The Hedgehog Prince. Now this boy, this seventh son of a seventh son was a very happy boy. His family was poor, but they loved each other.” Which pretty much described every kid in the room. I checked Kordy. His grip was slackening and his eyes were drooping. Good. Unfortunately, as he fell asleep, his temperature rose. The air conditioning could keep up with the room, but not the sleeping child. “The czar of the land where they lived was very greedy.”

“I’ll bet he was the one percent,” Stacy said.

“I am pretty sure he was in the point one percent.”

The girls nodded like they understood. Didn’t matter. When they got to fractions and percentages in school they might remember this.

“The czar wanted everything and he wanted it forever. One day a fortune teller came to court and told the czar that he would reign long, but he would be replaced by the seventh son of a seventh son. The czar couldn’t stand that. Somebody else sitting on his gold throne? Somebody else eating off his gold plates?” A trickle of sweat ran down the back of my neck. If I’d had a free hand, I’d have wiped it away, but one hand was supporting Kordy and the other one was around Sarah. “That person, that seventh son of a seventh son, might even spend his money.”

“What an asshole,” Troy said.

“We don’t say things like that,” I said.

“But he is.”

“And we are better than that. Anyway, the czar decides he’s going to find this seventh son of a seventh son and kill him. He sends spies out through the land to find the boy and one of them comes back with the information. The czar and his CFO ­–“

“What’s a CFO?” Troy asked.

“Chief Financial Officer. He’s in charge of keeping track of all the czar’s money. The two of them go to the house where the lucky boy is. The czar pretends to adore the baby and tells the family he’s going to adopt him and raise him in the palace.” I paused hoping this time one of the kids would object to a child being taken away from his family by an official. But they didn’t. “So they take the child to a high cliff and the czar hands the baby to the CFO and tells him to throw the boy over the cliff and into the sea.” I half gestured the motion with the hand holding Sarah. Kordy whimpered at the disturbance. Nothing from Sarah.

“The CFO looks over the edge of the cliff at the waves crashing against the rocks and then he looks at the sleeping baby in his arms and he can’t do it.”

“He’s a nice man.” Jasmine leaned her head on my knee.

“He is. Instead of throwing the baby over, he hides him behind some bushes at the edge of a field and tells the czar he threw him over and because the lucky boy is lucky, he is found by a farmer who has no children of his own and the farmer takes him home to raise him. Then, when he grows up—“

“You skipped a whole bunch!” Jasmine wailed.

“I didn’t skip anything.”

“But there was all the parts about him growing up.”

“This story never had any parts about him growing up.” Stacy sneered.

“No!”

I was looking at Jasmine when the last scream came so I knew it wasn’t her. Of course, I could identify that voice in my sleep.

“Not like that!”

I lifted Sarah off my lap and stood. “Can one of you girls take Kordy?” I called to the preteens.

“It has to be higher!”

Shay skipped across the room and took Kordy who immediately started to cry.

“What is going on in here?” Louise shouted from the door.

Because more yelling was going to help. I stepped between Lizzie and Daniel. Lizzie’s face was red and warped around her screeching mouth.

“God! What is wrong with you?” Carrie, Lizzie’s sister, snarled from the preteen corner.

“Carrie, not now. Lizzie, focus on me. You need to keep calm. Can you keep calm?” I kept my voice even, but nudged Daniel out of Lizzie’s range in case the girl did lash out.

Lizzie’s chest heaved, but she kept her eyes on me and didn’t flip out like she would have three months ago. Twice a week visits to a shrink and daily medication helped, but Lizzie really needed somebody with her on an hourly basis to catch her until she learned to catch herself. I didn’t like to think about Lizzie’s future because I usually ended up picturing bars and a manslaughter charge, but I couldn’t afford to work for just above minimum wage because I felt obligated to somebody else’s kid. Not with the student loans I’d taken out to be qualified to help these kids. Louise stayed poised at the door so she could evacuate the room if necessary.

Lizzie’s muddy hazel eyes stayed glued to mine. Her fists clenched at her sides. Rain pattered against the windows. The other kids stayed quiet, like deer sensing a hunter. Lizzie’s breath slowed. She licked her lips and relaxed her hands.

”Do you feel better?” I asked.

Lizzie nodded.

“Why don’t you sit down and color for a few minutes?” I gestured Lizzie to an empty table and waved an all clear to Louise.

“There’s no more coloring pages.”

Note to self, print out coloring pages. “Then do a puzzle.”

Lizzie sat down and put her head on her arms. Good enough.

I collected Kordy from Shay. He stopped crying and started chewing on my stained gray apron. “Where were we?”

“You were telling us about how the farmer and his wife took the lucky boy to the park and to the zoo and to the pizza shop and they played with him and bought him games,” Jasmine said.

“Nah-uh.” Stacy pouted. “That didn’t happen.”

“Let’s not argue about it, okay?” I bounced Kordy gently. “If you guys are done playing with those blocks and cars, I need you to clean them up.”

The highway had lost its shine during the crisis and now the kids who had been playing with them looked at them like they were radioactive, poisonous and might bite. Deshawn started tossing the cars into their plastic container and, encouraged by the example, Prince began gathering blocks. Notably, none of the kids protested that Lizzie should be helping. They weren’t stupid. I continued with the story of how the lucky boy grew up and decided to help his adoptive parents by going to the big city to make his fortune where the czar recognized him and sent him on an impossible task that he was able to do because he was lucky. When he returned, the czar was so jealous of the lucky boy’s wealth and success that he went off to repeat the task and failed making the lucky boy the new czar by virtue of having married the czar’s only daughter. The end. Happily ever after.

Kordy’s mother arrived somewhere in there and was pleased to see him sleeping so peacefully. Carrie and Lizzie’s mother also came to get them and she was pleased that Lizzie wasn’t standing in Louise’s office next to the dented filing cabinet. Other parents came until I had only six, Shay, Sarah, David, Jasmine, Stacy and Troy.

“Alright Miss Gina, I’ll take over in here so you can go clean the schoolroom.” Louise smiled benevolently from the door.

I headed out for the storage closet where the vacuum and bleach were. As my foot broke the threshold of the room, Sarah’s banshee wail rose. I turned around. Sarah stood in the middle of the room, red faced and howling as if she had been having the temper tantrum for hours instead of seconds. “I better take her with me.”

“You better.” Louise stared at Sarah as if she hadn’t seen this exact scenario play out before.

“Sarah?” I held out my hand. “Come on, scooter.”

Sarah stopped screaming and the blankness returned to her face. She crossed to the door and took my hand.

“Can I come too?” Shay asked. “I can watch Sarah for you.”

I looked at Louise who shrugged. Shay wouldn’t be a problem. She was the one kid at the center who didn’t need me, which I appreciated. “Come on.”

Sarah allowed Shay to take her hand so I could carry the vacuum and bucket of cleaning supplies upstairs.

“So how’s school going?” I sprayed bleach on the toilet and wiped it off. This job was supposed to be temporary, just until I got a regular teaching job. Everyone told me I might get hired the day before school started. Well, that door had closed.

“Okay. My teacher seems nice.” Shay crouched next to the doll shelf and held one out to Sarah.

“What are you studying this year?” Unlikely that I would find a regular teaching job before next September. I needed to start paying back my student loans in December. The kids would at least benefit from having somebody with a solid background in pedagogy and child psych instead of the three month childcare training course and a weekend Red Cross life saving certificate.

“Same stuff.”

“What about the other kids?”

“I already know most of them. There’s a new girl. She just moved here. She speaks Mexican at home.”

“Really? She speaks Spanish? Does she speak English well?” I wiped down the sink, switched off the light and closed the bathroom door. Sarah had taken the doll and was staring at its face.

“Pretty good. She goes to the tutor.”

“Is she going to teach you Spanish?” I wiped down the tables and put the bleach and rag back in the bucket before turning to the battered black and blue vacuum.

“I don’t know.”

“You should ask her. You could learn something useful and she would feel good about being able to help you. Win, win.” When I printed out the coloring pages, I needed to look for foreign language pages. Education.com had some.

Shay nodded. “I guess.”

The door at the bottom of the stairs opened and a heavy tread came up. As soon as Sarah’s uncle poked his head over the bannister, Sarah dropped the doll and ran to him. Still no expression on her face. Running was the only sign of her happiness.

“Hi sweetie, how are you?” Sarah’s uncle scooped her up. “Were you a good girl today?”

No answer, not that anyone expected one.

“Thanks,” Sarah’s uncle turned to go down the stairs to collect her brother with Sarah on his hip.

“No problem. See you tomorrow, Sarah.” I plugged the vacuum in to the sound of Sarah’s uncle’s retreating footsteps.

“My dad died last week.”

I scanned the room. Toys on shelves. Children’s voices downstairs. Lingering odor of bleach. Tick of the clock on the wall. Same gray industrial carpet as downstairs. Shay putting away the doll Sarah had dropped. No sign of nuclear explosion. “Excuse me?”

“My dad died last week.” Shay tugged the hem of her gray t-shirt. It had probably been black once upon a time. “My mom got a call from the Houston police. They identified his body from fingerprints in some national database. Are we going to play blackjack tomorrow?”

If I could still hear the clock ticking and Shay talking, there was still air in the room. I just wasn’t breathing it. I was absolutely not qualified for this. “Are you okay?” I asked. Using the air in my lungs triggered the involuntary response to draw in more even as black spots started dancing in front of my eyes.

“Sure. Blackjack is fun.”

“I mean about your dad.”

Shay shrugged. “I didn’t know him. He ran out when I was five.”

Now I knew why Shay had wanted to come with me. She needed an adult to help her understand this. I’m not worthy. “Yes, but he was still your father.”

“But I didn’t know him.”

A four-year degree including no fewer than three psychology classes and nothing covered this. “True, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be sad.”

Shay shrugged, preteen cool kicking in. “I guess.”

I considered and discarded clichéd responses. You can always talk to me. Well, obviously. I’m sorry for your loss. At least twelve kinds of horrible there. Do you know what happened? Nosy and the police IDed him from fingerprints, so hopefully Shay didn’t. It gets easier. Pretentious. I pushed the vacuum handle up until it clicked into place. “It’s kinda weird when a parent dies. Confusing.”

“Yeah.” Shay stared at the carpet.

The clock ticked. A car passed outside. Children’s voices, raised in argument, came from downstairs. The front door buzzed.

Shay sighed. “So are we going to play blackjack tomorrow?”

“We can play blackjack. Just keep it on the QT, okay? I’m not sure how thrilled your mom would be about me teaching you to gamble.”

Shay rolled her eyes. “We don’t gamble anything.”

“No, but blackjack is a card game people gamble on.” I tapped the lever to release the vacuum handle. “But first I want to sort out those blocks. We’ve got Legos mixed with K’nex mixed with Lincoln logs mixed with who knows what.”

“But if we sort out the blocks we can play blackjack.”

“Yes.”

Shay clapped. “I’m going to tell Darina.”

“Good, you get Darina on board. If I tell her, she’ll refuse on principle.”

Shay ran down the stairs. So, blackjack tomorrow. I started sweeping the floor.